Saturday, January 25, 2020

St. Johns County Commissioners defend process of hiring administrator. (SAR)

Good article in the St. Augustine Record by Managing Editor Stuart Korfhage and reporter Sheldon Gardner.  While I like and respect all of our Commissioners, I think their decision stinks on ice.

As Robert Kennedy told his staff, "Don't tell me what I should have done, tell me what I should do now."

Any one of them can move to reconsider.

This item was not on the agenda. It violated Sunshine, as I pointed out at the January 21, 2020 St. Johns County Commission meeting.

Will there be swift remedies for the illegal hiring of Hunter Conrad, an elected official, as permanent St. Johns County Administrator in violation of Sunshine, Open Records and civil rights laws?

1. My January 22, 2020 blog post and St. Augustine Record article on illegal permanent County Administrator hiring decision at January 21, 2020 Board of County Commissioners meeting are here:

2. January 21, 2020 Board of County Commissioners meeting 

agenda is here -- see Item 7  (national search, not permanent hire)

meeting video is here:
A. Item 7 (national search, not permanent hire), and comments I made during subsequent items.
B. I spoke in general public comment on concealment of PowerPoint on national search (Item 7). 
C. my comments during later items, after Item 7.

From the Sunday, January 26, 2020 St. Augustine Record:

By Stuart Korfhage
By Sheldon Gardner
Posted at 1:27 PM
For St. Johns County Commissioners Henry Dean and Jeremiah Blocker, last week’s decision to immediately offer Hunter Conrad the top post in county government came down to this: Lock him in now or lose him as a potential candidate for the permanent job.

For St. Johns County Commissioners Henry Dean and Jeremiah Blocker, last week’s decision to immediately offer Hunter Conrad the top post in county government came down to this: Lock him in now or lose him as a potential candidate for the permanent job.

That’s why Dean took the unusual step of making a motion at the Tuesday Commission meeting to offer Conrad the position on a permanent basis after about a month of him serving as interim county administrator.

About a week before the meeting, Conrad informed commissioners in individual meetings that he would be interested in taking on the job permanently but would not be interested in going through a lengthy search process. He’d rather go back to run for re-election as clerk of court than take a chance of applying for and possibly losing out on the administrator job.

So Conrad left the Commission with the decision of offering him the job quickly or not considering him beyond the interim post.

As Dean explained to The Record, it was an obvious choice from his perspective.

“I think I was as transparent as I possibly could be in outlining my position that I did not want to go forward with a nationwide search and spend anywhere from $30,000; $40,000; $50,000 of taxpayers’ money when I, personally, wanted to appoint Hunter Conrad,” Dean said.

It was clear his fellow commissioners agreed because they all followed Dean’s suggestion by voting in favor of offering the job to Conrad.

What they might not have considered is the way the entire situation looks to outsiders. The highest-paying position in county government — with the most responsibility — was just handed to a 33-year-old with absolutely no outside search. Not a single other candidate appears to have been considered.

And it happened without the general public having a reasonable expectation that a final vote would take place Tuesday. The meeting agenda provided only this as background on the item presented Tuesday: “Presentation of options for County Administrator recruitment.”

Dean and Blocker defended the way the process went in interviews with The Record. Commissioners Paul Waldron, Jeb Smith and Jimmy Johns either declined the opportunity to speak to The Record about the issue or did not respond to inquiries.

“I guess one can say: Was it noticed?,” Dean said. “To me ... what was on the agenda was the process for going forward to select a permanent administrator, and I guess you could say we short-circuited that, but I think that it was, the concept was on the agenda.”

Added Blocker: “We only had one meeting in January, so there was this push to get that on the agenda. But it’s not like we had an agenda item about building a new park and we got off on beach renourishment. This was related to the topic.

“My concern is we could spend a lot of money and a lot of time on a national search that may or may not lead to the right candidate.”

It’s not the first time the Commission has made a quick decision without notice on this issue.

The former county administrator, Michael Wanchick, was removed abruptly from the position in an action that was not noticed on the Commission meeting agenda Nov. 17. (It took place during commissioner reports.)

Blocker, who made the motion to remove Wanchick, argued that he had lost confidence to the point that immediate action was required. He was backed up by his fellow commissioners, who all voted to remove Wanchick.

At that time, Blocker recommended Conrad as the interim replacement. The other commissioners agreed, but Conrad was not actually given a contract until a Dec. 9 special meeting. That potential action was clearly placed on the meeting agenda.

He accepted the contract and started about a week later.

With no public indication Conrad was considered a candidate to be the permanent county administrator, he was offered the position at the second Commission meeting of his tenure as interim administrator. (Conrad and the county have yet to agree on a permanent contract, so he’s still the interim until that happens.)

So why were commissioners in such a hurry to offer Conrad the position?

Dean said Conrad is simply too important to lose as a candidate for the job.

Conrad left the position as clerk of court to be the interim administrator. If he were to stand as a candidate in a long national search and not be offered the permanent position, he would miss out on the chance to run for re-election this term.

In other words, Conrad would face the prospect of losing out on two well-compensated jobs and be left unemployed — although with his experience and connections, it’s unlikely he’d be out of work for long.

Commissioners have indicated they don’t want to lose him.

“I had to make sort of a considered judgment call when the Commission meeting rolled around ... of whether we should proceed with a nationwide search,” Dean said. “Or if Hunter is the right one for the position just go ahead and offer him the position because I think he’s doing an excellent job. I’m a big fan of Hunter Conrad.

“I, as one commissioner, am very comfortable with him as our county administrator.”

Blocker acknowledged that other internal candidates might have emerged if the administrator job had been opened for applications. But he said having someone not affiliated with the previous leadership was preferred.

“We had a candidate that was in place; we could lose that candidate because he could go back to being the clerk of court,” Blocker said of Conrad. “Clearly we as a board are comfortable with the decision making he’s had.

“Frankly, there have been some internal issues in the county (previously) ... there’s a reason we’re at this point. I felt that we needed to bring someone in from the outside. That’s not any knock on any of our current staff. I felt it was important, in my opinion, to bring someone in from the outside.”

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