by Jamie Beckett —

This is an open letter to the public. Because the news outlets in my city and county have been unwilling or unable to share this information with the public at large, the responsibility to share with the public an honest view of how the process of replacing a departing city manager was managed, has fallen to individual citizens. As one of the five residents of Winter Haven who are currently charged with overseeing the management of the city, I will share what I know of the process, for the benefit of anyone who wishes to better understand how the most recent transition occurred.

Dale Smith, the sitting city manager of Winter Haven, Florida, publicly announced his intention to retire at a city meeting on August 27, 2012. It was not news to many city residents, or senior city staff. Smith, whose wife retired from her career with the school system previously, had made it known to friends, staff, and at least this commissioner that he was considering retirement for himself in the not too distant future. The decision was on his mind.

Because city commissioners have a responsibility to oversee the operation of the city, during one of my regular visits to city hall, I took it upon myself to ask Mr. Smith about the timeframe he might be thinking of. He admitted he did not have a date in mind, but would almost certainly retire within the coming 12 -18 months.

I appreciated Mr. Smith’s forthright discussion of his plans, and took the opportunity to assure him I would continue to be open, honest, and supportive as he made his decision. This is a man who has given the bulk of his adult life to civil service, which I appreciate. He deserves to be treated with respect, and I hope I have been able to convey that respect during my time working with him.

Knowing that a senior employee is planning to retire is an important piece of information. It means there is work to be done, research to be gathered, and decisions to be made. In my case, I began that process many weeks before Mr. Smith selected the date of his retirement, or made that decision public.

Over the intervening weeks I spoke with senior staff members to ask if they would be interested in the city manager position, should it become available in the future. I asked them which of their peers they thought was best prepared for that position. I asked if the individual they suggested was universally respected by staff, or if they had the capability to do the job. And I asked for an honest assessment of the indicated individual’s weaknesses.

I spoke with Mr. Smith and asked whom he would recommend as his replacement, and covered much of the same territory with him. Then I took the narrowing list of potential candidates to the public. Because although the public would not have a vote on the matter, their confidence and consent would be critical. Even though I was aware the responses would not be unanimous, no matter who the candidate was, I have found that going to the public to illicit insights is an important part of my decision making process. So I did.

I talked to people at the coffee shop where I often interact with friends, and fellow residents of the city. I spoke to business people. I got input from the young professionals, the old guard, and long standing institutional entities in town. I went to the streets, the college, the businesses, and the phone. While I did not keep count, I would estimate that at least 100 Winter Haven residents and business owners shared their perspective with me. And I appreciated the candor of each of them.

We discussed hiring internally, we discussed hiring externally. We talked about the time and cost associated with a national search. We talked about the results of previous searches as well as those done by other cities, both larger and smaller. We talked about succession plans and systemic changes. We talked a lot.

I even found an impressive report that originated at the Wharton Business School, suggesting significantly higher costs to hiring externally, and a disturbingly long period of time that could be lost getting the external new-hire up to speed.

Over time I found overwhelming, albeit not unanimous support for the idea of hiring internally – provided a qualified candidate was interested in the position. This idea crystalized when it became clear that the full number of internal candidates who were interested in applying for the opening totaled – one. Deric Feacher, who was, and is currently serving as the assistant city manager, made it clear that he wanted the job and believed he could do the job.

Deric and I talked at length about his qualifications, abilities, experience, and goals. We also talked about limitations, because every human being has at least a few. Deric was honest and aware of this fact, which gave me a sense of confidence in his ability to lead.

Knowing at that point we had an internal candidate I felt good about, I went back to the public. I talked, I listened, I advocated, I considered. In all I found three people, all of whom I hold significant respect for, who wished to go to a nationwide search. The vast majority of the people I spoke with not only felt comfortable with the idea of hiring Mr. Feacher for the opening, they were enthusiastically supportive.

With the insight I’d gained from the public and my own convictions based on my experience working with Mr. Feacher and the city’s staff, I spoke with Dale Smith in his office on Monday, September 10, 2012 – prior to the city commission meeting scheduled for that night. I told Dale that unless he had a compelling reason not to, I intended to make a motion to nominate Deric Feacher (the man Dale himself had recommended as his replacement) at that night’s meeting. Mr. Smith did not indicate any misgivings.

That night, during the regularly scheduled commission meeting, the commission attended to budgetary issues that are mandated by the State to be the first substantive issues dealt with during the meeting. As soon as those issues were dealt with, I asked the mayor to be recognized, then proceeded to make a motion to appoint Deric Feacher the city manager, upon the retirement of the current city manager, and to empower the city attorney to negotiate a contract for that position. After considerable discussion the motion passed unanimously.

From beginning to end the full process had taken more than two months, cost the residents nothing, and produced an excellent candidate who is widely regarded as the best possible choice for the job.

That is an accurate description, from my perspective, of the process taken that led to the hiring of Mr. Feacher as the city manager for Winter Haven, starting in February 2013. The process occurred entirely in the sunshine, as it should. The public was involved from very early on in the process, and had significant input into the winnowing of names, and the selection of the final candidate.

I anticipate great success, and continue to commit myself to helping Mr. Smith, Mr. Feacher, and the entire Winter Haven population find our way into a bright future of economic vitality, diversity, and longevity – for all concerned.

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