Newest Hillsborough commissioners give Mike Merrill low marks

Merrill will retire as county administrator in June. That didn’t stop the three newest county commissioners from letting him know where he could improve his performance.
Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill
Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill
Published Oct. 24, 2019

TAMPA — Mike Merrill says he’s looking forward to that day next June when he clocks in for his last day as Hillsborough’s County Administrator.

And his final performance evaluation won’t have changed his mind.

After nearly a decade in the county’s top job, Merrill said the annual employee review presented during last week’s county commission meeting was the first “bad review” he’s ever received in nearly 10 years on the job.

County records prove him right.

But this year’s appraisal came from a very different commission than the boards of effusive evaluations past.

This year’s low marks came largely from the three newest members to the board: Democrats Mariella Smith, Pat Kemp and Kimberly Overman. Their critiques did not stop the board from giving Merrill a 4 percent raise, despite dissenting votes from commissioners Smith and Kemp.

According to county records, Merrill’s base salary is $281,904 a year.

But the disparate evaluations did succeed in digging the trenches a little bit deeper between the commission’s newer members and its old guard — Republican commissioners Sandy Murman, Ken Hagan and Stacy White, and Democrat Les Miller, the board’s chairman.

The commissioners were each asked to score Merrill on a scale of 1 (unsatisfactory) to 5 (exceptional) across 11 categories tied to his behavioral performance and achievements at work. The responses ran hot or cold, resulting in an overall performance score of 3.8 out of 5. According to the document’s ratings scale, that means Merrill “met expectations to an acceptable extent.”

Commissioners Murman and Miller gave Merrill a 5 in every category. But he didn’t receive a 5 in any category from commissioners Kemp, Smith and Overman.

Commissioner Ken Hagan didn’t fill out the evaluation at all. And when asked to rate Merrill’s “leadership” and “communication” skills at work, Smith gave the lowest possible score — an “unsatisfactory” 1.

“Decisions need to be made more objectively, free of internal and external politics,” Smith wrote. “Leadership should promote a culture of trust, openness, honesty and collaboration.”

Still, when the time came to address those remarks, Merrill remained characteristically unflappable during the meeting, thanking the board for their support.

“I do appreciate the opportunity to talk with Commissioner Smith and Commissioner Kemp about their concerns and I take them seriously," Merrill told the board. “I know we don’t agree on a lot of them, but at least we were able to have a conversation and I think I know what I need to do to improve.”

On his self-evaluation, Merrill identified those improvements as “more effectively assisting in building policy consensus” and “delegating and mentoring effective decision making across the organization.”

As county administrator, Merrill is tasked with overseeing all operations within county government, answering directly to the County Commission and acting as the board’s adviser.

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The nature of the position is often difficult to reconcile, particularly when answering to seven different bosses, Commissioner Ken Hagan said.

“Candidly, that’s why most county administrators don’t last as long as Mike has,” Hagan said.

That conflict was even evident in the written feedback Merrill received from commissioners, who cited the county’s mounting affordable housing crisis, unbridled sprawl, and Hillsborough’s longstanding reputation as one of the most dangerous areas for pedestrians and cyclists in the country.

"It’s time for a new direction,” wrote Kemp, who gave the Administrator 2′s across the board when rating his skills in strategic management, leadership, judgement in decision making, financial resource management, responsiveness and communication.

“The next County Administrator needs to meaningfully work to support the growing consensus of the board, as well as the clear desire in the community, to achieve the change needed for the long term fiscal and environmental health of Hillsborough County," Kemp wrote.

Her words mirror the sentiments that first led the 2010 commission to pluck Merrill out of Hillsborough’s debt management department and thrust him into the county administrator’s seat.

At first they assured him the job switch was only for the interim. The commission had just fired former County Administrator Pat Bean for doling out illicit pay raises in the height of a recession, and the county’s leadership was in turmoil. But Merrill’s ability to quickly regain control of the county’s finances, by restructuring its leadership and reshaping their priorities, convinced commissioners to make him Bean’s permanent replacement.

Since then, the County Administrator’s office has taken up so many county-wide initiatives and projects that it took the characteristically-succinct Merrill 28 pages just to list them in his self-evaluation.

“I have always endeavored to faithfully serve the county commission," Merrill wrote. “However, in so doing I have always been guided by the belief that my decisions and recommendations must always take into account, first and foremost, what is best for the community and residents.”

Still, it was clear from the commissioner’s comments that Merrill’s influence isn’t always welcomed. Kemp, Smith and Commissioner Stacy White cited a last-minute slideshow presentation Merrill prepared for a board workshop that was quickly adopted by veteran commissioners as “guiding principles” for all future policies for managing growth and development of county land.

“It is not clear how Mr. Merrill, who isn’t a planner, became so committed to a land use policy that he has not even mentioned to me during my nearly three years on the board,” Kemp wrote. “Mr. Merrill has not provided an explanation."

Merrill ended his evaluation by writing that he has worked to “motivate everyone to prosper in their own lives and professions” and hopes to “ensure that county government remains a preeminent and sustainable community leader and servant.”

“I’ve strived to be the best servant leader I could be, learning from my mistakes and celebrating together in our successes," Merrill said. "It has been my honor and privilege to serve this community and will do so faithfully until the last day.”