As Clearwater prepares to hire a firm to conduct its third nationwide search for a city manager in less than two years, officials are hoping to put recent lessons learned to use.
During a Monday work session, City Council member Kathleen Beckman said she wants the job description to include qualifications like knowledge of Florida’s open meetings law. The law prohibits council members from talking to each other privately about business they will be voting on. So Beckman said she wants a city manager who seeks direction and input from each council member before initiatives are put in place, not as they are presented for a vote on the dais.
“Do we want to include something about transparency and facilitating these kinds of directions in the public eye on the front end?” Beckman asked, referring to former City Manager Jon Jennings, who was fired last week. “When I look back, I think that’s part of the problem is that I don’t feel I was brought in along on the front end enough and that I don’t think that a lot of times on big projects ... that we gave direction as a whole in public.”
The comments reflected the rationale council members cited when they voted 3-2 on Thursday to fire Jennings due to a lack of trust from poor communication, failure to prepare the council for decisions and changing initiatives without council approval. Council members David Allbritton and Mark Bunker voted against termination.
Although council members agreed they have learned valuable lessons in the experience with Jennings, there was not consensus to change the job description that was issued in the last search.
“The thing that I thought Jon lacked was he was free to go out and see what kind of deals there were out there, but before he went to the final step of securing the deal, it should come back to us,” Allbritton said. “I don’t know how you put that in (the job description).”
The city has not yet contracted with a search firm, but the council agreed not to use the firm Baker Tilly, which conducted the last two searches.
The first was launched in March 2021 to find a successor to former City Manager Bill Horne, who served in the role for 20 years. The city received 91 applicants, but then four of the five finalists dropped out before interviews began.
The city launched a second search in June 2021 that attracted 109 applicants, including Jennings. It was amid this search that Horne died of a suspected heart attack in August 2021, three weeks before his planned retirement.
The council voted unanimously in September 2021 to hire Jennings over three other finalists. He began work two months later.
After terminating Jennings last week, the council named assistant city manager Jennifer Poirrier as interim city manager. On Thursday, council members will vote on setting Poirrier’s salary at $204,000, which is 20% above her current pay.
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When the council voted to hire Jennings in September 2021, they commented on how he seemed to be more of a changemaker compared to the three other finalists, who came off more as caretakers. Mayor Frank Hibbard said Monday that the change-agent demeanor came with its upsides but also some downsides, and “in my opinion, we got downside.”
Going forward, Hibbard said there is a need to “make sure the trains run on time” while also shaking things up and making advancements.
“I’d love to have somebody that makes sure that everything gets done, that we understand our roles and responsibilities of us setting policy and then the manager administrating and managing the staff,” Hibbard said. “I think certainly that will be made clear even more so in this next process.”