BROOKSVILLE — David Hamilton had done his research.
He knew in early 2008 that he was coming to a place that devoured county administrators, and he was coming at a particularly bad time.
Many residents had turned angry about rising property taxes. The housing bubble had burst, and the eventual decline in tax revenue was likely to cause severe withdrawal pains for a county addicted to growth.
Hamilton saw it all as a challenge.
For 31/2 years, he survived, longer than any other administrator since the Hernando County Commission fired Chuck Hetrick in 1997. But in November, a divided commission fired Hamilton, citing a loss of confidence.
Now, Hamilton is putting his Hernando experience to good use.
"I'm concentrating on finishing my dissertation and completing my doctorate in public administration,'' Hamilton told the Times in a recent interview. "It involves the economic implications and consequences of developing counties on the periphery of large urban, growing metropolitan regions."
That topic, he said, "was originally what drew me to study Hernando County and ... to the position of county administrator. In essence, I was a part of a live case.''
The switch to academic mode, and away from the hectic pace of running a county government, has given Hamilton, 62, some time to think about what he accomplished here, but also to ponder how things went so wrong at the end.
By the time he left, Hamilton had alienated many county employees, key members of the business community and even most of his own leadership team.
"I knew things were going to be tough from the day I started. Many people support and supported what I was doing. Those who didn't seemed to voice their thoughts, at times, to everybody but me,'' Hamilton said.
"That's unfortunate because it meant that I couldn't understand and possibly address their concerns, and that was disappointing.''
To some extent, Hamilton accepted that taking criticism was simply part of the job.
"Everyone at some point criticizes the boss. It is a natural element in all organizations, and it comes with the turf. It is not exclusive to Hernando County,'' he said. "As a change agent, I also understand why it is difficult to be confident with leadership because change creates uncertainty and challenges the status quo.''
Hamilton said he accomplished what he was asked to do and met a fate at the end that was not unexpected.
"I was hired to do a tough job with tight time lines, and I knew that coming in. The budget needed to be brought in line. Long-standing projects needed to be completed. And the leadership of the entire organization needed to align to the needs of the county,'' he said.
"Hernando County is now better positioned than it was when I started. But cutting costs and pushing for results can lead to push-back, and it did.''
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For Hamilton, who prior to Hernando had been the administrator in Crow Wing County, Minn., the county administrator's job always involved dual tasks. He had to deal with immediate crises while also taking the long view of reducing expenses and setting the stage for the future.
"While there are always elements of turmoil in the issues of the day that demand your immediate attention, I never took my focus from the target of developing and implementing needed changes that I committed to do from the day I arrived,'' he said.
"And although I didn't complete the five-year contract, I completed what I came to do … reorganize, (by creating the) leadership team, downsize and change the culture to an outward-focused, customer-driven organization from an inward-focused, self-serving one,'' Hamilton said.
"Much remains to be done, but that's what I came to do.''
Since 2008, the county's general fund revenue has plummeted 25 percent, and the size of the county staff has been reduced by about the same percentage, largely through attrition, but also some layoffs.
"I was reluctant to do that, but we were running out of options," Hamilton said of the layoffs.
Along the way, departments were consolidated and functions were combined, saving the duplication of some efforts.
At the same time, Hamilton restructured leadership in county government, cutting the 26 department heads and elected officials to a leadership team of eight. For the first time, elected constitutional officers were invited to the table for discussions that would have an impact all county functions.
Hamilton said the proof of the leadership team's value was clear, even as he was cleaning out his office and leaving the government center for the last time in November.
The County Commission that day turned to team members for counsel and picked Land Services Director Ron Pianta as the interim administrator. Several weeks later, when Director Of Administrative Services Cheryl Marsden pushed hard for the reluctant commission to hire a search firm to help in the hiring of Hamilton's permanent replacement, the commission agreed.
Those were good choices, Hamilton said.
As for changing the culture of county government, Hamilton said his tenure as administrator brought an end to what he called "the infinity plan.''
"Although I look forward to infinity, I do as a Christian, not as a county administrator,'' he said. "The culture of never completing projects on time and on budget, or in the case of south Brooksville not even trying, has ended.
"Today, Hernando County completes projects on an established time frame, and change orders generally, if not always, reduce cost,'' he said. "That's big.''
Making that change was one of the things the county needed to do to have credibility in the community, he said.
"Getting things done is what county administrators do, and by focusing on accomplishments and successes, we renewed our respect from our customers, the residents of Hernando County,'' Hamilton said.
He did admit one regret.
With a new generation on the leadership team, "I would have enjoyed working with (them)," he said. "These are the leaders that will keep Hernando County focused on its future. But I'm very pleased they are in place to work with the next county administrator.''
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Some county commissioners and community members have suggested that Hamilton ran afoul of some powerful members of the Hernando business community and that it hastened his departure.
He doesn't deny that there were those who wanted him out. But Hamilton said he has a broader view of the business community than simply those who run banks and hospitals, companies that build homes and individuals who sell real estate — some of whom wield influence with county commissioners.
Hamilton sees the county's business community as diverse, with a lot of family-run establishments and storefronts that sell products and services of all sorts.
"Business people understand value and customer satisfaction. That is the only way to stay in business," he said. "Hernando County accomplished a great deal in this regard, by lowering our costs and improving our service. Most business people should be pleased.
"I also believe a significant portion of the entire community of Hernando County supported what we accomplished while I was county administrator,'' he said. "I never differentiated from any group or individual.
"From my perspective, everyone was important and required our attention, and it is imbedded in my DNA as a kid who grew up in retail: Serve the customer. Serve the customer. Serve the customer because, at the end of the day, what's in the till is about how you served the customer.''
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Even as he moves on to the next phase of his life, Hamilton said he wanted to share some advice with county commissioners, based on what he learned during his tenure.
"Your next county administrator will be welcomed to an organization vastly different than the one you asked me to downsize, reorganize and change. Invite them through another door, one that is not revolving,'' he said, making reference to the steady stream of short-lived Hernando administrators.
"Build it by putting in place a plan that you will stick with, one that you engage the community in developing. Although strategic plans are often maligned, and they are, they are vital to the success of an organization and ultimately your success as political leaders,'' he said.
Hamilton suggested that the commission take the 24-point transition plan that he drew up as the county's "to do" list before departing. He suggested that commissioners use it as a part of their new plan to move forward.
The reason to develop a plan is simple.
"Accountability,'' Hamilton said. "Strategic plans allow measurement of what is and is not accomplished. Of course, there's the daily issues that arise and must be resolved. But they should not be the main driving strategic force of the county.
"Stay focused. And here is the why. With less money and increased demands, every dollar and every decision counts more and more every day,'' he said. "You have more people to serve. You have less money. You need a plan.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.