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Bonnie Wise, Hillsborough’s next administrator, almost skipped career in public service

Now, she is designated to become Hillsborough County administrator July 1.
Bonnie Wise, Hillsborough County deputy administrator and chief financial administrator, will become county administrator July 1.
Bonnie Wise, Hillsborough County deputy administrator and chief financial administrator, will become county administrator July 1. [ Hillsborough County ]
Published May 11, 2020

TAMPA — Bonnie Wise turned down the initial offer of a public service career.

Newly-elected Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio made the pitch in 2003. She wanted Wise to become the city’s chief financial officer and presented the opportunity during a meeting at Wise’s South Tampa home,

Wise said she was flattered and honored. But she also said no, because she wasn’t ready to leave a successful investment banking career at William R. Hough & Co.

Iorio’s husband, Mark Woodard, then an assistant county administrator in Pinellas, told the mayor-elect to try again. He was familiar with Wise’s municipal bond work at Hough and thought she would be a strong asset for the new administration at Tampa City Hall.

“I don’t think I did a good enough job selling this to you,’’ Iorio told Wise during a second meeting. She laid out plans for her administration and the role of chief financial officer. Then she added that both Iorio and her husband “found public service very fulfilling and I did not think she would regret it.’’

Wise acquiesced and hasn’t regretted it since. “I would say that Mayor Iorio was right,” she said.

Seventeen years after becoming a public servant, Wise is poised to become Hillsborough County administrator, the appointed head of a government serving 1.4 million people with more than 4,000 employees and a budget of $6.65 billion. Effective July 1, Wise will succeed retiring County Administrator Mike Merrill, who departs after more than 30 years in county government including the final decade as county administrator.

"I do know I have some big, big shoes to fill,'' Wise said.

The county commission’s elevation of Wise, who moved from City Hall to become Hillsborough’s deputy county administrator and chief financial administrator nine years ago, drew immediate accolades.

Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden called Merrill “a very good friend of mine and one of the best county administrators in the history of Hillsborough County,'' but wasn’t shy about praising Wise, either. He described her as “extremely loyal and extremely bright’’ and said the commission “made a very, very good decision.’’

“She’s the kind of person this county needs right now,’’ said Chris Boles, treasurer of the 1,200-member Hillsborough County Firefighters Local 2294. “She’s employee-centric and collaborative.’’

Related: Hillsborough taps Bonnie Wise as county administrator

Wise takes the job under odd circumstances. A majority of county commissioners wanted to extend Merrill’s contract to continue the ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic and complete what is expected to be a difficult budget season because of free-falling sales tax collections. But the proposed contract extension failed to garner the required five-vote supermajority. Instead, the board voted 6-1 to offer a two-year contract to Wise.

Commissioner Mariella Smith cast the lone vote, saying she wanted to name Wise as an interim and continue the national search.

"My vote was certainly nothing against Bonnie Wise. I’m happy to have her be our administrator,'' Smith said. But she said a search could have produced the best possible candidate nationwide. "That’s not to say Bonnie Wise wouldn’t end up being that candidate. I’m not opposed to an internal candidate. I just feel it’s very important the public knows that internal candidate won the position competing with the best applicants and has risen to the top.''

Wise said she understood that sentiment. "I’m prepared to move on from that and just do the best job possible for Hillsborough County,'' she said.

Smith said she hopes Wise will foster an "open, transparent and accountable government (in which) everybody stays in their lane, with the decisions being made by elected officials on the board and the administration implementing those policies with public input welcome to the greatest extent possible.’’

It illustrates the significant political challenge of the job: Navigating the often-competing interests of a seven-person commission, some who owe loyalty only to the voters in their districts while others face a countywide constituency.

Meanwhile, Wise must steer through the emergency response to the pandemic, the fast-approaching hurricane season and the now-familiar list of pressing issues to be tackled: Affordable housing, transportation, establishing appropriate land-use policies and the demands on services from growth.

Asked for specific ideas on dealing with south county sprawl, Wise demurs, saying she wouldn’t develop recommendations until meeting with each commissioner. "I do recognize that we do need to move quickly and start to address these issues,'' she said.

Does an answer like that mean Wise already has begun navigating the in-house political landscape?

"She’s not political at all,'' offered Belden. "It’s a matter getting factual information so they can make factual decisions.''

The extent of her qualifications is noteworthy, said Iorio. Wise worked the first half of her career in the private sector, is familiar with both sides of the equation in city-county relations and has prepared government budgets during multiple residential real estate booms and the Great Recession.

Wise, who turns 57 this month, was born in Brooklyn, but her family moved to South Florida when she was 5. She received her undergraduate degree and master’s in business administration from the University of Florida and ended up in the Tampa area after graduation. She is married and mother to two grown children — a son, Aaron, who lives in North Carolina, and a daughter, Hannah, who is planning to start nursing classes in July.

If you visit the Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center on Howard Avenue, you might recognize the woman teaching mahjong classes: It’s Wise. She also gives private lessons and travels the country to compete in mahjong tournaments, raising money for charities.

The game presents both social and intellectual components, Wise said, because it allows her to meet and befriend new people while the competition exercises memory skills.

Bonnie Wise, top row, right, and friends commemorate Sept. 11, 2001, with a Fly for Freedom trip that usually travels to other cities to celebrate freedom and to attend a 9/11 memorial service. In 2019, the group stayed in Tampa and bumped into Commissioner KImberly Overman and Hillsborough Fire Chief Dennis Jones at the ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park. Shown above first row, left to right, Sue Denihan and her mother, Patt Denihan. Back row, left to right, Kathryn Driver, Overman, Jones and Wise. Driver and Patt Denihan formed the group,
Bonnie Wise, top row, right, and friends commemorate Sept. 11, 2001, with a Fly for Freedom trip that usually travels to other cities to celebrate freedom and to attend a 9/11 memorial service. In 2019, the group stayed in Tampa and bumped into Commissioner KImberly Overman and Hillsborough Fire Chief Dennis Jones at the ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park. Shown above first row, left to right, Sue Denihan and her mother, Patt Denihan. Back row, left to right, Kathryn Driver, Overman, Jones and Wise. Driver and Patt Denihan formed the group, [ Courtesy Bonnie Wise ]

Wise also tries to travel once a year with a group of friends known as Fly for Freedom. They plan trips to remember the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, celebrate freedom and attend the 911 ceremonies at their destinations. They’ve visited Atlanta, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Las Vegas and California.

In Wise’s county office is a watercolor print depicting some of the accomplishments of the Iorio administration like the Riverwalk and the Tampa Museum of Art, family pictures, a mahjong card from her birth year of 1963 and copies of published articles lauding her professional career.

They serve as reminders that she’s been recognized, she said, but it’s the commitment of government employees that made it possible

“Nothing gets done alone,” Wise said. "You have to do it as a team.''