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10 city manager hopefuls

(ran BEACH editions)

Acting City Manager Chris Brimo worked in his office Tuesday night as commissioners, just steps away, debated who should fill the city manager job.

When their conversation turned to whether Brimo should be a finalist, he left the building and took a walk. He didn't want to overhear their discussion.

"It is sort of awkward," Brimo said the next day. "One does not make the semifinals list but is sort of a write-in candidate, if you will.

"It's nice to know that commissioners think I'm capable enough for them to include me in the process, and we'll go from there."

Brimo was not among the 16 top candidates selected by a consultant but nonetheless will be one of five finalists interviewed for the job.

City commissioners selected nine finalists Tuesday night from a search firm's top picks. They also added one of their own, Brimo, even though the consultant they hired said Brimo was less qualified than other applicants.

"You people know Chris much better than I do," the consultant, Tom Freijo of the Mercer Group, told commissioners Tuesday.

Two other local officials also made the cut: Mike Bonfield, city manager in Madeira Beach, and Paul Williams, public services director in Gulfport. Freijo said both men have a familiarity with St. Pete Beach that would ease the transition if one of them got the job.

As for the other finalists, minus at least one who has withdrawn his candidacy, Freijo will conduct background checks and telephone interviews before choosing four for interviews with the commission Nov. 28 and 29.

Williams was also a finalist for the St. Pete Beach job when Carl Schwing was hired in 1997. After nine years with Gulfport, he said he is ready to return to a top administrator job.

"I think the skills I have will match what the city of St. Pete Beach needs right now," said Williams, who also was city manager for eight years in Madeira Beach. "I have a background in finance, public works, planning and zoning and team building. Those attributes could help to serve St. Pete Beach."

Bonfield was out of the office late last week and could not be reached for comment.

At a meeting last week, Freijo helped city commissioners whittle their list of candidates by first asking them to choose the four candidates they were least impressed with, then the 10 candidates they favored most.

The commissioners' list of 10 included Brimo, but they then were faced with a question: Should they mandate that Freijo include Brimo among the five interviews?

"I did not feel like, from a totally objective perspective, that he should be one of the individuals that I should recommend to you," Freijo told commissioners.

Commissioners debated whether Brimo was a serious candidate because of his intimate knowledge of the city. They questioned whether they would hurt the process by interviewing four outside candidates, plus Brimo, rather than five outsiders.

"Are we playing a game with Chris?" Commissioner Peter Blank asked. "What we're saying here is give me the top four, and we'll throw in Chris for a bone."

Commissioner John Phillips argued for making Brimo part of the process.

"The best man or woman will win, whether it's Chris or not," Phillips said.

THE FINALISTS

Andrew M. Barton, 51, was the city manager in Fernandina Beach until Oct. 1 and held the position less than two years. When he resigned, he told the Florida Times-Union of Jacksonville that he wanted to "go in a little different direction."

Barton became the seventh city manager in seven years to leave the city manager job in the small town located on Amelia Island. Some commissioners said they had hoped he would help bury their reputation for not being able to hold onto a city manager; instead, they fear, he helped confirm it.

A month before he resigned, Barton presented the Fernandina Beach City Commission with a study showing that his $70,000 salary left him underpaid compared to city managers statewide.

Before he worked in Fernandina Beach, Barton worked for the city of Kirkland, Wash., for 12 years. "That's a testament to his ability to stay and please," said Tom Freijo of the Mercer Group, a Winter Haven-based consulting firm hired to help St. Pete Beach look for a new city manager.

Barton's short tenure in Fernandina Beach was not without controversy. He almost lost his job in December after commissioners learned he briefly dated a city employee while separated from his wife. He and his wife reconciled, and his wife, Dee Ann, even spoke on his behalf at a City Commission meeting where commissioners voted 3-2 to reprimand him.

Barton holds a master's degree in public policy and a master's in business administration from City University in Seattle, and a bachelor's degree in English from the University of South Florida.

Russell Benford, 32, is the village administrator in Hawthorn Woods, Ill., a post he has held less than two years. He previously spent six years working for Plano, Texas, as a neighborhood services specialist and city planner.

In his work in Texas, the code enforcement issues he dealt with ran the gamut, from a Home Depot that habitually stored items outdoors in violation of city code to a controversial cellular phone tower. Once, according to the Dallas Morning News, he received a call from someone who complained that a neighbor was landscaping the yard with rows of corn, peas, tomatoes and other crops.

"The front yard was a farm," Benford told the newspaper. "I can understand the neighbor's concerns, but it wasn't a code violation."

He described his current community, Hawthorn Woods, as an upscale area comparable to St. Pete Beach. He said housing in the Chicago suburb starts at $600,000.

According to the Chicago Daily Herald, Hawthorn Woods is a suburb trying to create its own postbuildout downtown area. Meanwhile, St. Pete Beach has two historic "downtown" streets, Corey Avenue and Eighth Avenue, a remnant of the days when Pass-a-Grille was its own city.

Benford has a bachelor's degree from Oberlin College in Ohio and a master's degree in public affairs from the University of Texas in Austin.

Michael P. Bonfield, 42, has been city manager in Madeira Beach for almost three years. The job was his first as a top administrator; before moving to Madeira, he spent 17 years working for the city of Gulfport as a recreation supervisor, parks and recreation director and director of community services.

Bonfield has always impressed his employers with his ability to snag state and federal grants. He helped bring more than a dozen grants to Gulfport, and in Madeira Beach, he has been instrumental in the redevelopment of John's Pass Village, a project that will cost $2.4-million and won $1.4-million in grants.

Bonfield took a pay cut when he moved from director of community services in Gulfport, where he made $65,000 annually, to city manager in Madeira Beach, where he started at $60,000. Six months later, the City Commission raised his salary to nearly $65,000, and today he makes $76,131 annually.

His most recent raise came with some reservations from the council. Two city commissioners held back on offering Bonfield their full support. Commissioner Doreen Moore said he needed to "grow into the job and do a better job."

During that evaluation this summer, Madeira Beach Mayor Tom DeCesare openly worried that Bonfield might apply for the St. Pete Beach city manager post if commissioners did not back him more wholeheartedly.

Bonfield, who has continued to live in Gulfport while working for Madeira, has already informed St. Pete Beach that he would not move to the city if he became city manager.

Bonfield has an associate's degree from St. Petersburg Junior College, a bachelor's degree in physical education and recreation from the University of Tampa and a master's degree in public administration from the University of South Florida.

Pamela D. Brangaccio, 45, has been the assistant county administrator in Charlotte County for five years, but previously worked in Pinellas County.

She also has held various public administration positions throughout Florida since 1979.

She returned to Tampa Bay, where she grew up, in 1991 when she became city manager of Safety Harbor, her first job as a top administrator. She resigned in 1996 to take the Charlotte County job.

During her five years in Safety Harbor, Brangaccio was praised as a go-getter but criticized for her interpersonal skills. Some commissioners even called her rude and condescending.

Even her top supporter on the commission, Kathleen Bambery, gave her high marks but said Brangaccio "must work on becoming more patient, less defensive and take a periodic attitude check."

She had a spat with the new mayor at the dais shortly before her departure from Safety Harbor because he issued a memo to staff without going through her. "There is a reason the mayor is paid $6,000 and the city manager is paid $70,000," she said afterward.

While in Safety Harbor, Brangaccio led the city through construction of a new library and new City Hall. St. Pete Beach's new City Hall is currently under construction, and some residents are lobbying for a new library.

"We had five commissioners drifting around in a life raft wondering what to do," Kent Runnells, a former mayor of Safety Harbor, said when she left in 1996. "She came here and made the commissioners set some goals and identify their priorities."

Brangaccio has a bachelor's degree in political science and anthropology from the University of South Florida and a master's degree in public administration, also from USF.

Christopher Brimo, 42, became the acting city manager of St. Pete Beach after City Manager Carl Schwing resigned suddenly in July.

Brimo has worked for St. Pete Beach since 1991, when he was hired as a planner. He became director of planning and development in 1993 and held that job for seven years until Schwing reorganized city employees last year, making Brimo assistant city manager.

Schwing appointed Brimo last year to head an in-house design team designated to help the city prepare for long-range goals. The group has, among other projects, created a new set of land development regulations that city commissioners are beginning to consider.

According to city records, Schwing took a close look at Brimo's department two months after Schwing became city manager.

He gave Brimo a poor assessment, calling the department head well-liked but nonconfrontational and saying the department lacked guidance. "Confusion supreme," Schwing wrote in the evaluation of Brimo's management skills.

Schwing resigned among concerns from the commission that he did not have a good working relationship with staff, including Brimo.

As director of planning and development in a city where business and residential needs are often at odds, Brimo dealt with a series of controversial issues, including Pass-a-Grille resident John DaSilva's efforts to turn the famed Busch estate into a corporate retreat.

Brimo has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in urban and regional planning, both from Florida State University.

Francis A. Frobel, 49, has been town manager of Coventry, R.I., for 15 years. Before that, he spent seven years as the assistant town manager of Killingly, Conn.

He is particularly active in the Rhode Island Town and City Management Association and the International City Manager Association and was named Outstanding Rhode Island Local Public Official of the year in 2001.

A Brown University study recently reported that Frobel's town is unresponsive to the public. The report was based on public records requests that were made to the city but not completed by city staff.

"I'm mystified," Frobel told the Providence Journal-Bulletin after the study was released. "We would have responded accordingly."

Afterward, he arranged for public records training sessions for himself and some employees.

In the mid 1990s he proposed a 16.4 percent tax increase that would have added $321 to the average resident's tax bill. An unprecedented 500 residents showed up to protest, and town commissioners whittled the budget.

More recently, when a police chief tried to get Frobel to spend money on three new officers, Frobel declined, despite the fact that the town had had the same number of officers for decades.

Frobel earned a bachelor's degree in political science and public administration from Central Connecticut State University and a master's degree in public administration from the University of Hartford.

V. Peter Schneider, 57, is the deputy city manager in Sarasota, where he has worked for 13 years. He was previously the human resources director for the city of Gainesville and, before that, was assistant county administrator in Alachua County.

Freijo, the consultant helping with the city's search for a new manager, described Schneider as a family man who wanted to stay in Sarasota long enough for his children to graduate high school. Now that his daughter is in college, he is willing to make a move, Freijo said.

Freijo called Schneider "a person of the highest quality."

Schneider and a committee of four department heads made up a Project Oversight Committee responsible for keeping an eye on renovations to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Theater, a project that went at least $575,000 over budget, according to an audit released earlier this year.

That audit spread the blame around for the cost overruns, blaming the construction manager for spending $1.8-million without permission; a contractor looking out for the city's interests for approving spending $700,000 in contingency funds without informing city officials; and the city government, including Schneider's committee, for failing to adequately oversee the project.

Schneider has a bachelor's degree in business administration from St. Thomas University in Minnesota and a master's degree in urban and regional studies from Minnesota State University.

Stephen E. Sorrell, 52, is the city manager of Hamilton, Ohio, where he has worked since 1979. He was promoted to the top administrator job two years ago.

Freijo said Sorrell, who has no jobs on his resume outside of Ohio, is seeking a new job because he can retire from his city job in Ohio and begin collecting benefits.

Sorrell explained to Freijo that even though his current city has an industrial base, it also has several historical features that make him familiar with tourism.

According to the Associated Press, Hamilton, Ohio, recently dealt with the potential loss of $1-million in property and income tax revenues when a paper company closed its 540-employee complex.

Past controversies in Sorrell's administration included a Y2K fix that would have cost half the city employees one week's pay. At the time, the city paid employees on alternating weeks but wanted to switch to paying everyone on the same biweekly schedule.

The plan would have left half the employees without a final check in December 1999.

Recently, the City Council considered cremating instead of burying the poor who cannot afford burials, in order to save the city money.

Sorrell has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Dayton, a master's degree in public administration from the University of Cincinnati, and is working toward his doctorate in political science from the University of Cincinnati.

Christopher J. Vaz, 34, township administrator in Little Egg Harbor, N.J., told the Times last week that he is withdrawing his name from contention.

Paul Williams, 48, is the public services director in Gulfport, where he has worked for nine years. Previously, he spent 14 years in Madeira Beach, including eight as city manager.

He left Madeira Beach under odd circumstances after the City Commission announced it was simply time for a change. Commissioners suspended him with pay for a week, and before that week ended, Williams resigned rather than face a firing.

"I came in as a professional and I want to leave as a professional," Williams said in 1992.

One of the commissioners who criticized him at the time was Tom DeCesare, who is now mayor of Madeira Beach. DeCesare said Williams did not keep commissioners as informed as he should have.

Now DeCesare is on Williams' list of references for the St. Pete Beach job, and Williams' resume states: "Effective communication with the board of commissioners No. 1 priority."

His trouble with the Madeira Beach City Commission divided the town, with several people showing up at his last meeting wearing caps or shirts emblazoned with bumper stickers that read: "All for Paul."

Williams also made the short list in 1997, the last time St. Pete Beach shopped for a new city manager.

In Gulfport, Williams oversees various departments, including community redevelopment, planning building and zoning, code enforcement and streets and sanitation.

Williams holds an associate's degree from St. Petersburg Junior College and a bachelor's degree in social work and master's degree in public administration, both from Florida State University.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writer Kevin McGeever contributed to this report.

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