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The rise and fall of another Hernando County administrator

BROOKSVILLE — When David Hamilton was interviewing for the job of county administrator in January 2008, he turned the tables on county commissioners.

What did the commissioners want from their next administrator, he asked.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins didn't hesitate.

"Two layers of thick skin and dogged determination,'' he said.

That might have seemed like the right answer at the time, but it didn't work out in the long run, Stabins says now.

In early 2008, the county was still stinging from the outcry of a community angered by rising tax bills, even after the housing bubble had peaked. With the economic decline in full swing, Hernando County had just lost administrator Gary Kuhl after a year and a half. Kuhl complained about rampant negativity in the community.

His predecessor, Gary Adams, had lasted about the same amount of time and left basically for the same reason.

Commissioners questioned Hamilton and another applicant about their ability to survive in a negative atmosphere, how they communicated with people and whether they would be willing to make a commitment to stay in the job for a while.

Ultimately, Hamilton's experience as a county administrator, an elected official and in business won him the job, but with a divided 3-2 vote.

Last week, the current board voted 3-2 to fire him.

Hamilton has declined to be interviewed. But a glimpse into his transition plan — which he had hoped would allow him to complete two more months on the job — and the resume and cover letter he submitted to Sarasota County recently, clearly shows the things he was proud of accomplishing in the Hernando County.

They include his work to gather more public input and create more transparency in the budgeting process, meeting the challenge to reduce spending by shrinking the staff from 1,535 to 1,283 and reducing the leadership team from 26 department heads to an eight-member team.

He also listed getting the Hernando Beach Channel dredge finished on time and on budget and making long-needed infrastructure projects in south Brooksville a priority.

Another project he took on was finding a way to accommodate space needs and reconfigure government offices.

Even those who supported Hamilton's ouster said that, at first, he did what he was hired to do. But, in time, his style of getting things done began to work against him.

"He was asked to do a job that no other administrator seemed to be able to do,'' said Stabins, who made the motion to fire Hamilton. Not only did he have to downsize county government as tax revenue plummeted, but "he had to handle all of the festering problems with the high-level staff. And he did it.''

Commission Chairman Jim Adkins, who also supported the termination, said he thought Hamilton eventually will be considered one of the best administrators the county has had.

"When he started out, he had a very tough job. He did the things that he had to do,'' Adkins said. "He had to make government fit the revenue.''

"David didn't do all bad. I'm not saying that he did,'' said Commissioner John Druzbick, who also voted to fire the administrator. "It was his management style more than anything else'' that caused problems.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who has only watched Hamilton as a commissioner for one year, gave him a perfect score in his last evaluation and supported him when the vote to terminate was taken.

"He has helped us start on reducing the cost of government, although we know there is more work to do there. He has helped us move into the future,'' Dukes said. "To me, he's a man of many talents.''

Said Commissioner David Russell: "If you look at the organization from 2008 and compare it with the organization of 2011, it is remarkable for someone to have accomplished that in a relatively short period of time'' and without massive cuts in services.

Russell turned out to be one of Hamilton's strongest supporters at the end. But he didn't vote to hire him in 2008.

"I wanted someone to be a tough, no-holds-barred administrator,'' he said. "I thought he was a wuss.''

While Russell appreciated Kuhl and Adams, he saw the negativity take them out of the picture. "It was havoc,'' he said.

But Hamilton, who had to deal with racial discrimination and sexual misconduct issues right off the bat, soon showed a side that Russell didn't expect.

"David Hamilton proved me wrong a number of times. He certainly earned my respect,'' Russell said.

He said he believes it was also remarkable that Hamilton could last as long as he did, since previous administrators didn't, and especially given the volatile situation he walked into.

Sometimes that left him alone making decisions, including painful decisions to downsize and discipline staff.

"I believe that perhaps David did take things on himself. He thought that was what was necessary,'' Russell said. "But he stepped on the wrong toes at the wrong time.''

Along the way, Hamilton riled up the county's constitutional officers, and he drew questions about the way he hired consultants to examine the Public Works operation and to conduct a salary study.

His decision to hire an acquaintance of his wife to manage the dredge project and his recent choice to make Susan Goebel director of environmental services and give her a raise blew up in his face.

Adkins agreed that Hamilton's handling of a number of issues made him begin to lose faith in the administrator, including the recommendation to move Goebel and the controversy over letting Lisa Hammond, a consultant for the clerk of the circuit court, take over purchasing for a time.

Hamilton's decision to hire Greg Jarque as the dredge manager and his handling of a sex discrimination case involving community development director Jean Rags were also on Adkins' list.

His vote to dismiss Hamilton, he said, "was to stop the political firestorm'' that was surrounding the administrator.

"We got sucked in. We got conned,'' Stabins said of the commission that voted to hire Hamilton. "He was a salesman. He charmed us, but in the long run the weaknesses came out.''

Stabins said the grumbling in the government center about Hamilton's management style was widespread and in 2009 he confronted Hamilton about concerns from his own leadership team that they were not being heard.

They were his scapegoat, Stabins said.

"That was not what David made it out to be in his interview with us,'' he said. "The group was just to be a rubber stamp for what David wanted.

"Primarily there was a lack of trust and respect from his leadership team and the people who worked in the courthouse. How bad is that to have a whole organization seem to fear and detest you,'' Stabins said. "I do think that David's style of management just brought out the worst in all of us.''

Druzbick made the first move to fire Hamilton last month after he said Hamilton had deceived commissioners by not telling them that administrative services director Cheryl Marsden did not agree with the recommendation to move Goebel.

"What sunk him was him not telling us the truth,'' Druzbick said.

He said his issues with Hamilton stretched back more than a year before that.

Druzbick said Hamilton would get an idea and push it, even after he was told it couldn't be done, aggravating staff. Sometimes he would not offer the board a full menu of options on issues. Druzbick also said he had questions about Hamilton's handling of several aspects of the dredge.

"A lot of decisions that should have been made by the administrator were brought to the board without recommendation,'' Druzbick said. "Was that to protect the administrator?''

Druzbick said that Hamilton also "had an agenda of certain people he wanted gone.''

With the recent voluntary departures of directors Joe Stapf in environmental services and Rags — and with two other leadership team members looking for jobs — there was an obvious lack of trust and confidence from the staff, Druzbick said.

Plus, Hamilton lost support from a key sector of the community that has the ear of the all-Republican and business-oriented County Commission.

"The business community felt he was not out in that community to do things to help economic development,'' Druzbick said. "These business people have been here a long time and they want to see a prosperous Hernando that helps business.''

That, Stabins agreed, was "the fatal mistake.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

The rise and fall of another Hernando County administrator 11/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 12, 2011 1:15pm]
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