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Vero spurns the private sector in picking manager

(Week of May 12, 2011), Photo of James O'Connor

Did Vero Beach City Council pick a new city manager who will run the city like a business?

At least two of its sitting members campaigned for election last year championing that goal.  However, after many interviews of prospective new city managers – including one who had only business experience and no government experience at all – the Council apparently decided that the ‘run like a business’ theme was more rhetorical than practical.  It picked James O’Connor, a veteran city manager with no private sector business experience, as its top choice.

O’Connor currently makes $145,000 a year as city manager of Winchester, Va., where he oversees 400 employees and manages a budget of $176 million. He has 25 years’ experience as a city manager, including 14 years in Bartow. Council on Friday voted to enter into contract negotiations with him as the next Vero Beach City Manager.

The decision came quickly after just one ballot – and there were official ballots.

To avoid the kind of confusion that marred the previous council meeting, when it took three tries to select four finalists from among five semi-finalists, Vice Mayor Pilar Turner asked David Johnson, president of HR Dynamics, to oversee the voting.

O’Connor received two votes on the first ballot, from Turner and Councilmember Craig Fletcher, with Kevin Sullivan, Kenneth Griffin and Interim City Manager Monte Falls each receiving one vote.

Mayor Jay Kramer voted for Griffin, who had his public job interview before the council earlier in the meeting, while Councilmember Brian Heady voted for Falls.

Councilmember Tracy Carroll, who campaigned on the need to run the city more like a business, cast her initial vote for retired Lockheed executive Kevin Sullivan, the candidate with the strongest business background. (Q about why vote for Sullivan, why switch to O’Connor)

After a being urged by Fletcher to go with the top vote getter despite differing preferences, the council approved O’Connor by a voice vote of 4-1.

Heady was the lone dissenter.

Prior to the balloting, he made the case for keeping Falls as city manager based on economy and Falls’ knowledge of the city and the job.

Falls, director of public works, took on the city manager duties when former City Manager Jim Gabbard retired in October, and Heady said he is only costing the city an additional “$6,000 or $7,000 a year” on top of his public works salary.

He also said it was a mistake to change horses in midstream with complicated negotiations going forward to sell the city’s electric utility to Florida Power and Light, and to merge the municipal water/sewer system with the county’s system.

While city manager of Bartow, O’Connor was president of Florida Municipal Utilities Association and a board member of Florida Municipal Power Association, and Heady suggested that his utility association background might prejudice him in favor of utility interests to the detriment of the city.

In response, Turner pointed out that it had been 18 years since O’Connor was head of the utility association.

“You want somebody in those negotiations who knows how utility companies work,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher and Turner both said they were as impressed by O’Connor’s personality and demeanor as by his qualifications. Turner said she thought he would make a strong public spokesman for the city.

Fletcher said he wanted a city manager who will effectively carry out the council’s mandates once they are made but also someone “who is willing to disagree with me” in preliminary discussions, adding O’Connor had demonstrated that characteristic in a private meeting earlier in the week.

At the suggestion of Johnson, whose firm conducted the search for a new city manager, the council held a second vote to choose a backup candidate in case negotiations with O’ Connor fall through, selecting Griffin.

The council also voted to form a steering committee composed of Johnson,

Fletcher, City Clerk Tammy Vock, City Attorney Wayne Coment and a representative of the city’s human resources department to negotiate an employment agreement with O’Connor with the goal of having the contract ready for approval by the council’s next meeting on May 17.