After last week's public forum and commissioner interviews, retired Naval officer Andrew Butterfield seemed to be the clear-cut favorite to become Manatee's next county administrator among a field of four finalists that board members had claimed to be enamored with. That changed at Tuesday's meeting, however, when a name that was not among the vast field of applicants was suddenly propelled to the front of the pack: current acting administrator Charlie Bishop.
Now, you may remember that we mentioned rumors that there would be a backdoor effort to install Bishop in the role permanently a little while back on The Bradenton Times Podcast. We noted, however, that it seemed unlikely by that point, given that board members had not only stated unequivocably that under no circumstances would someone from the inside get the job but had already engaged an executive search firm and begun the work of fielding applicants.
Betting odds swung a bit, however, when acting administrator Lee Washington was eased out and the "acting" tag was briefly bestowed upon deputy county administrator Courtney De Pol. But, that apple cart was also upturned, when, during an August 3 meeting, the board—acting on a motion by Commissioner George Kruse—motioned to appoint Bishop.
Given both that Commissioner Jason Bearden immediately jumped to second the motion only to rescind it once he realized it wasn't the name he had been expecting, and that De Pol's husband was in the audience and left shortly after that item, it seems likely that Kruse managed to throw a wrench into what had been in the works.
At that point in time, we again explored the possibility that a back channel effort to install Bishop permanently may be taking place. But the board kept moving forward with its search and the enthusiasm that was expressed for Butterfield by both commissioners and the search firm was enough to suggest that they had found their man. Butterfield was the only candidate to appear on all seven commissioners' final list of who should be invited down to interview and looked to be in the lead with six of the commissioners when they dialogued following the public portion of the interviews on Friday.
So, it was a bit surprising when commissioners Jason Bearden, James Satcher, and Kevin Van Ostenbridge showed up Tuesday and announced that they were not comfortable enough with any one candidate to move forward and even wanted to consider reopening the application process. Commissioners Kruse, Mike Rahn, and Amanda Ballard seemed equally surprised and suggested they had expected to move forward with Butterfield.
Van Ostenbridge indicated that it was possible he could be persuaded with another conversation or two with the candidate, during which he might be able to get him where he needs to be, whatever that means. I suspect that Butterfield had not managed to sufficiently convince the chair or his bosses that he would be sufficiently subservient to those who really run things down here in Manatee County, which is to say the development cartel. Not that any of the candidates should be surprised by that, assuming they kept up with the asinine decision to gut county wetland regulations that took place while they were here, despite clearly going against the will of the people.
Satcher was first to tip his hand. While expressing his desire not to rush forward with the process, the first-term commissioner noted that whenever he wants to get anything done, he looks to the guy sitting to his right, which happened to be Bishop. Soon after, Bearden attempted to amend a motion to continue the item into one to make Bishop the permanent county administrator. When the county attorney advised that such an amendment couldn't be made, it was decided that the commissioners would narrow their finalists down to two candidates and move forward. Lo and behold, Bishop, who had never even applied for the job, joined Butterfield as the second finalist.
Another tip that the fix could be in came when Bishop, looking even more bedraggled than usual at the dais, mentioned the fact that the county was bringing on another deputy county administrator, a gentleman by the name of Bryan Parnell, who, according to his LinkedIn profile has a background quite similar to De Pol's—civil engineer, military background, from out of the area.
You might remember that former acting administrator Lee Washington closed out that position before the board could install Jon Mast, a developer lobbyist who heads the same BIA that submitted the so-called white paper that has been guiding changes to development policies. That was the beginning of the end for Washington, and the position was later reopened while he was MIA. Now, why would an interim administration hire a deputy administrator while the board is in the process of hiring a new administrator? Wouldn't you want the top boss to have a say in the selection of one of his top deputies? And who was interviewing candidates and deciding who to bring on? I imagine that would have been the acting county administrator. It sort of makes you wonder whether at least some people may have known that none of the candidates would be hired.
Lost in the conversation was Lee Smith, who was the most qualified of the four finalists interviewed last week. Smith not only brought the strongest resume, having graduated through three county manager positions, each in a larger county than the one prior, but also had experience with communities most similar to Manatee County. Butterfield was once a base commander, but his public administration experience is limited to four years as operations manager for the City of St. Pete Beach (population 8,717).
Smith added to that resume with a very strong presentation on Friday, but it didn't matter. He was never going to get the job, because the Manatee County Commission isn't looking for the most qualified candidate with the most relevant experience. They are looking for someone willing to carry the same water they do in enacting the bidding of the development cartel that installed them as elected officials in the first place.
For Smith and all the others, there are surely blessings to be counted, even in rejection. The next Manatee County Administrator will have their work cut out for them, to say the least. Working with a government that has been stripped of most of its experience and institutional knowledge, he or she will also have to sign off on all kinds of additional abuses that are about to be heaped on an already scorned public through the rewrite of the comp plan and LDC. And they'll be expected to simply duck and cover, absorbing their many recriminations in exchange for a hefty salary loaded with perks. To that end, Charlie Bishop is far and away the most qualified person for the position. Well done, commissioners.
Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of our weekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is available here. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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