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Hillsborough taps Bonnie Wise as county administrator

She replaces Mike Merrill, who retires June 30.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners decided Wednesday their next administrator will be a familiar face.

The commission named Bonnie Wise, assistant county administrator and chief financial administrator, as county administrator to succeed Mike Merrill, who is retiring June 30. She will receive a two-year contract.

The promotion came after Chairman Les Miller Jr. initially advocated extending Merrill’s contract through the end of the year.

"We can’t afford to have someone come here and do on-the-job training. It will put us behind the eight ball,'' said Miller.

His peers agreed, but some said they wanted to elevate an in-house candidate instead.

"I’m fine with promoting from within. I’m content to do it today,'' said Commissioner Stacy White.

After an extended debate and plenty of compliments aimed at Merrill, the board declined to extend his contract. Commissioner Ken Hagan wanted Merrill to stay through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year, but his motion failed to gain the required super-majority of five votes. Commissioners Pat Kemp, Mariella Smith and White voted against the extension.

Miller then made a motion to hire Wise as permanent administrator effective July 1, but Smith said the role should be on an interim basis. She said the county should still do a national search for the administrator’s position. Smith lost that argument and the board then voted 6-1 to hire Wise. Smith voted no.

"I do think we need a national search at some point. I do agree that now is not the time for that. I am in favor of moving up an interim administrator who can see us through the end of the year,'' she said earlier in the meeting.

Wise said she was humbled and honored by the commission’s confidence. She joined the county in 2011 and previously served eight years as chief financial officer for the city of Tampa.

Earlier, on a motion from Miller, the commission voted 6-1 to end its national search being conducted by Tallahassee-based S. Renee Narloch & Associates under a $29,950 agreement. Kemp dissented, saying she favored suspending the search, but not ending it.

The flurry of activity came as the board received an update on the search for Merill’s successor, which had been put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We also recognized the uncertainty and gravity of the situation for potential candidates who are most likely focusing on the crisis in their communities and are unable to dedicate the time and resources necessary to participate in our process,’’ company president Renee Narloch wrote in an April 22 memo to the county.

The original timeline called for the commission to rank its top finalists on April 8, interview the candidates two weeks later and then begin negotiations with its pick.

Merrill has been administrator since 2010, selected from the county’s debt management department to fill what was supposed to be the interim role of succeeding the fired Pat Bean. His base salary is approximately $282,000.

The county administrator oversees the day-to-day operations of county government and its more than 4,000 employees. The administrator, who answers to the seven elected commissioners, carries out their policy decisions and prepares an annual budget of more than $6.65 billion.

Commissioners lauded his performance.

" I’m very proud of Mike’s work, his leadership and his vision over the last 10 years. I do respect his commitment. He has worked tirelessly,'' said Hagan, who championed Merrill’s hiring 10 years ago.

"He’s done an excellent job, more than an excellent job,'' said Miller.

Merrill, in turn, thanked his bosses.

"It’s been my honor to serve the county for 30-plus years and 10 years as administrator,'' he said.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, left, during a coronavirus-related news conference in March.
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, left, during a coronavirus-related news conference in March. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]