CLEARWATER — Three of the five finalists in Clearwater’s search for a new city manager have withdrawn their candidacies before in-person interviews are scheduled to begin next week.
In light of the unexpected circumstances, the City Council will hold a special meeting on Wednesday at 4 p.m. to consider next steps. Mayor Frank Hibbard said he is inclined to proceed with the remaining two finalists who he said were both “capable.”
“We could pull the plug and start fresh but I think that’s improper,” Hibbard said. “We’ve got two finalists that remain and I think ought to go through the process.”
On May 24, the council selected their top five from a list of 10 semi-finalists prepared by the city’s search firm Baker Tilly. The city had received 91 applications to replace outgoing city manager Bill Horne, who has led Clearwater for 20 years. The pool included no internal candidates.
Horne had planned for his last day to be in July after contract negotiations with his successor were expected to have been completed.
But hours after the council selected their top five on May 24, finalist Jill Goldsmith, town manager of Chatham, Massachusetts, withdrew her name.
She said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times that her decision was not a reflection on Clearwater but “a personal decision to remain committed to my current community.”
Then on May 28, Gary Palmer, who resigned as city administrator of Roswell, Georgia, on June 1, dropped out without providing a reason, according to an email human resources director Jennifer Poirrier sent to the council.
Palmer did not respond to an email or voicemail requesting comment.
On Monday, Michael Cernech, city manager of Tamarac, Florida, told Baker Tilly director Art Davis in an email that “this is not the right time” for him “to pursue this tremendous opportunity.”
Cernech received the most praise from council members during their discussion on May 24. He has worked in Tamarac administration for 20 years, the last 10 as city manager. He piqued the council members’ interest as he began calling community leaders and residents to gain insight about the community shortly after the city advertised the position in April.
He also visited Clearwater with his family in May and attended downtown’s sip and stroll event.
In an interview with the Times on Monday, Cernech said his decision was personal but declined to provide more details. He said it “had nothing to do with the city of Clearwater.”
“I just want everybody to understand that it’s a tremendous opportunity, I think one of the best opportunities for a city manager in the state,” Cernech said. “I would loved to have had the opportunity to be the city manager in Clearwater but the timing is not right.”
The two remaining finalists are Carl Geffken, city manager of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Kevin Woods, city manager of Thornton, Colorado.
Geffken noted in his application that he has managed local governments and organizations of all sizes throughout his career.
During his five years leading Fort Smith, population 88,000, Geffken said the annual balance of the city’s general fund increased from 9 percent of expenses to 56 percent due to the budgetary controls he implemented.
Geffken noted his accomplishments in taking over the handling of two federal wastewater consent decrees, one in Fort Smith and another in Reading, Pennsylvania, where he served as city manager from 2009 to 2012.
He also worked as chief operating officer for Berks County, Pennsylvania, from 2012 to 2016 and in nonprofits prior to that.
While managing Thornton since 2017, a city of 145,000, Woods has led a $500 million, 75-mile water project and created a community outreach department to better understand undeserved residents, according to his application.
He served as town manager of Stallings, North Carolina, from 2014 to 2017 and spent 26 years in the U.S. Army, with his last assignment as deputy commander in Texas, where he was responsible for the support to all Army operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The finalists are scheduled to go on a three-hour tour of the city on June 14; have one-on-one interviews with City Council members and then participate in a community forum on June 15; and participate in a public city council interview on June 16.
The schedule provided by Poirrier, the human resources director, includes a possible meeting for the council to vote on a selection on June 16 or June 17.