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Clearwater calls off city manager interviews as four of five finalists drop

The latest withdrawal came on Thursday, days before the candidates were scheduled to visit Clearwater for interviews.
The Clearwater City Council, seen here at a recent meeting, is working to find a successor to city manager Bill Horne, foreground, but must restart its nationwide search after four of five finalists dropped out of the interview process.
The Clearwater City Council, seen here at a recent meeting, is working to find a successor to city manager Bill Horne, foreground, but must restart its nationwide search after four of five finalists dropped out of the interview process. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Yesterday
Updated Yesterday

CLEARWATER — It wasn’t the phone call Mayor Frank Hibbard expected to get just days before the City Council was scheduled to make one of its most consequential decisions in years.

On Thursday afternoon, one of the two remaining finalists for city manager said he could not make the in-person interviews next week due to a family medical emergency, human resources director Jennifer Poirrier told the mayor.

Maybe that alone wouldn’t have been so surprising. But Fort Smith, Arkansas, city administrator Carl Geffken’s cancelation made him the fourth candidate to pull out of Clearwater’s search process for a city manager since the council selected five finalists on May 24.

“I was shocked,” Hibbard said. “It makes you feel like the process is snake bitten. But, you know, we’re going to find somebody. This is a very attractive job and I believe the right person is out there. We just have to stick with it.”

With only one of five finalists left in the process, Clearwater officials called off the in-person interviews scheduled to begin on Monday in their search to find a successor to outgoing city manager Bill Horne. The council will hold a special meeting on Monday to discuss restarting the nationwide search.

Although he cannot travel to Clearwater next week due to the family medical issue, Geffken said he did not withdraw as a candidate, according to Poirrier.

The drop outs began about four hours after the council members selected their top five candidates on May 24 from a list of 10-semifinalists search firm Baker Tilly had whittled from the 91 applicants. That’s when Chatham, Massachusetts, town manager Jill Goldsmith emailed recruiter Art Davis to say she decided to “continue my commitment to my current community.”

On May 28, former Roswell, Georgia, city administrator Gary Palmer dropped out without providing a reason, Poirrier said.

Then on Monday, Tamarac, Florida, city manager Michael Cernech, who received the most praise from council members, withdrew for a personal reason that he said “had nothing to do with the city of Clearwater.”

The council called a special meeting on Wednesday to discuss the unexpected circumstances and agreed to continue next week’s interviews with the remaining two finalists: Geffken and Kevin Woods, the city manager in Thornton, Colorado.

On Friday morning, with only one candidate remaining, Poirrier called off the council interviews, city tour and public forum scheduled for next week.

“I was disappointed and surprised but I think we deserve a larger pool of candidates to actually interview,” council member Kathleen Beckman said.

Neither Geffken nor Woods responded to a phone call and text message requesting comment.

The city began its nationwide search for a new city manager in April. Horne, who has led the city for 20 years, had expected to retire in July after contract negotiations with his successor were scheduled to be finalized.

He said earlier this week he would coordinate with the council to decide a final retirement date if the city had to start the process over again.