Mike Merrill brought a sense of order to Hillsborough County government in the months since Pat Bean was fired as county administrator, and he should be able to build on long-overdue reforms now that he has the job on a permanent basis. County commissioners could have learned a few things by conducting a national search first. But Merrill is a solid pick, and he has the standing to follow through on plans to improve the delivery of public services and streamline the county work force.
Commissioners gave Merrill the job last week, reversing an earlier decision to keep him in the post on an interim basis. The board would have benefited from conducting a national search; a fresh set of eyes is helpful to any large organization, especially one that is looking to reinvent itself. The time and money spent would have been a good investment. But in giving Merrill a two-year deal, the board showed a well-deserved level of confidence in him while setting expectations for Merrill to guide the county through the struggling economic recovery.
The 57-year-old has spent nearly 23 years at the county, and his work with utilities, finance and economic development gives him a foundation to rethink how the county should deliver services and expand the jobs base. Merrill has nothing of the drama that consumed his predecessor. As importantly, he has a newly seated board that took over after the November elections. There is more depth to this commission, and early signs show that board members have a good working relationship. Board Chairman Al Higginbotham needs to keep these positive dynamics on an even keel.
Merrill already has floated some sensible ideas for making the county bureaucracy more responsive. The county needs to flatten its management structure and continue to explore whether it can consolidate some services with other government agencies. But Merrill and the board need to remember that the county has many unique responsibilities in the urban and unincorporated areas, from animal control to environmental protection. There is a difference between making county departments run better and eliminating their functions altogether.
Merrill can start 2011 with a clean slate and clear authority. His appointment marks a fresh break from the paralysis of the Bean years, when the operating culture was more about politics than professional judgment. The commission needs to give Merrill the room to flesh out his ideas, but the new administrator is on course already. He needs to keep this discussion moving along — and transparent.