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Ex-city manager Margaret Willard dies

Though it has been three decades, Sandy Woodall still remembers her first assignments as then Brooksville City Manager Margaret Willard's administrative assistant.

Her task was to organize minutes from nearly 100 years worth of City Council meetings onto index cards.

"I thought she was just giving me a lot of busy work," said Woodall, who was just 24 years old when she went to work for Mrs. Willard in 1974. "It wasn't until much later that I realized what a gift she was giving me."

Mrs. Willard, who served as Brooksville's first city manager, died Tuesday (Jan. 20, 2004) at Hernando-Pasco Hospice Care Center of Brooksville at age 74. No cause of death was disclosed. She was an employee of the city from 1963 through 1983.

Though her approach was not always conventional, those who knew her say she was shrewd in her methods and always willing to work.

"What I thought was a lot of busy work was Margaret teaching me the history of Brooksville," said Woodall, who credits her position as city manager of Dunedin to her years at Mrs. Willard's side. "I learned why (Brooksville) was where it was and how it got there. I knew all the players and politics involved."

Over the course of months, notes dating back to the city's incorporation in 1880, took shape into a mosaic of small-scale government and gave Woodall a perspective she would otherwise have missed.

"Each piece of the puzzle led to something else and before I knew it, I had a good handle on the government," said Woodall. "She was grooming me and I didn't even know it."

Brooksville police Chief Ed Tincher remembers Mrs. Willard as a fair, compassionate woman who expected a great deal from those she worked with.

"She could make you feel good about yourself," said Tincher, who first met Mrs. Willard when he was a patrol officer in 1978. "It's a gift we all possess, but most of us seldom use."

Under Mrs. Willard's guidance, there was an atmosphere of "no nonsense" in the city government, Tincher said, something that gained her a vast amount of respect from those who knew her.

But such unrelenting honesty is not always immediately rewarded.

In 1983, Mrs. Willard filed a federal lawsuit against the city alleging that she had been improperly fired as city manager. The suit detailed how former council members Pat Fagan, Tom Varn and Ed Ragan and city engineer Gene Manuel conspired to have her terminated after she questioned the ethics of allowing Manuel to review his own projects as city engineer.

Manuel held several positions with the city and county and was also the president of Coastal Engineering Associates Inc.

Mrs. Willard eventually settled out of court for $81,000, which in 1987, was the largest legal settlement in Brooksville's history.

"She was one of the original whistleblowers," said Connie Romine, one of Mrs. Willard's four daughters. "She wasn't afraid of anybody. She would have taken on the president of the United States if that's what it had taken."

During her two decades with the city, Mrs. Willard served as city clerk, financial director and city treasurer. She was instrumental in forming the Brooksville Housing Authority to oversee the city's first subsidized housing.

"She was part of a working family," said Romine. "They worked for everything they ever had so she knew what it was to come from that sort of background."

Mrs. Willard is survived by her husband, Richard; her daughters, Carol Clark of Richmond, Va., Connie Romine of Brooksville, Kristie Ponsell of Waycross, Ga., Brenda Carter of Homosassa; her brothers, Harrell Coburn of Brooksville and Gene Coburn of Seffner; a sister, Mildred Garman of Brooksville; 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. The family will hold a private gathering instead of a public service.

_ Joy Davis-Platt can be reached at (352) 848-1435. Send e-mail to joysptimes.com.

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