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Manatee Makes Good Case for Elected County Administrator


This week, the Manatee BOCC announced that they would seek to negotiate with County Administrator Ed Hunzeker in order to keep him on past August of 2014, when he reportedly planned to retire. Hunzeker is a competent bureaucrat who has certainly helped manage Manatee through a period of epic budgetary challenges. However, the relationship between the administrator and the board is often cloudy and might make a good argument for those who favor elected administrators in municipal government.

Some Florida counties organized under a charter form of government, or home rule, have just that. However, non-charter counties can have either a five or seven-member county commission, with or without a county administrator, but are not empowered to create elected county “mayors” like Duval and Orange counties have under their charters.

As an administrator, Mr. Hunzeker has undoubtedly distinguished himself in several areas, including budget management. Under his guidance, the county has been able to weather the recent financial downturn better than most municipalities. This is partly because Manatee avoided the sort of spending that creates long-term cost obligations during years when revenues were inflated by the building boom, allowing the county to avoid tapping reserves too liberally, while still not having to make unbearable cuts in services as they wind down budget spending. Anyone familiar with municipal budgets can tell you that this is no small feat.

Hunzeker is also a budget realist who consistently confronts the board with not only the initial but long-term costs of proposed initiatives, which may be politically palatable today, only to bring major headaches tomorrow. Anyone who follows politics knows the danger of having those who implement a government's policies serving as yes-men, doing little more than telling elected officials what they want to hear, before doing their best to paper over inept initiatives.

Hunzeker has also employed progressive cost-cutting measures. After switching the administration of its healthcare plan over to Aetna, Manatee is expecting millions in reduced health care premiums for county employees, bolstered by an emphasis on preventative care and the encouragement of healthier lifestyles. The county has also streamlined permitting and removed many duplicative efforts to cut costs while keeping fees low, while making it easier to mitigate wetland development. Accordingly, Hunzeker has built a reputation as someone who is pro-business and especially friendly to the land-development interests that dominate our local economy (as well as our political spectrum).

Critics of the administrator, however, have accused him of micromanaging departments to ensure top-down policies that mirror his own ambitious agenda, cultivating an environment where even senior employees are mindful of dissent. Hunzeker has also developed close relationships with several of the county commissioners, whom he can often be seen with in social settings, and has at times skirted the line on electioneering, such as when the county coordinated a media release and press conference announcing a planned Little League field deal with the City of Palmetto.

The ordeal seemed to be orchestrated in a way that would benefit Commissioner Larry Bustle, who was up for reelection at the time, and was the only incumbent facing both primary and general election challenges. The plan, which Bustle did not have any concrete role in developing, was little more than county staff's requested presentation of options based on direction given by the board earlier that year. Yet Bustle was tapped to give the press conference before the rest of the board had even been briefed that the presentation had been completed.

Bustle had been Mayor of Palmetto when the original land-swap deal went sideways and was being attacked for the fact that years had since passed without the promised fields ever having been delivered. Letting him be the face of what was promoted as a solution (the plan has still not been finalized) was at best disingenuous, and at worst highly-political.

The fact that it was Bustle who initiated the gushing over Hunzeker on Tuesday makes that look even shadier, especially since the two have seemed lock-step on major issues since Bustle was first elected. Judging by their chummy relationship, not to mention Bustle's epic flub in the negotiation of new port director Carlos Buqueras's deal while he was port authority chair, I'd also be more comfortable if someone in Hunzeker's own family were “negotiating” any of his future contracts.

Previous to Buqueras's hiring, Bustle and Hunzeker took a mutual interest in creating an "Interim Port Transition Administrator" at Port Manatee. After breaching the subject at a port authority meeting, Bustle immediately recommended a questionable candidate without disclosing his controversial dismissal from another position. The result was an uproar from tenants, staff and some commissioners, which ultimately killed the idea. Hunzeker's interest seemed to be in expanding his influence, while at the same time undermining a professional rival, soon-to-be-retiring port director David McDonald.

These are just some of the incidents that hint at the sort of behind the scenes wrangling our state's sunshine laws are designed to prevent. The BOCC routinely convenes with a majority clique of its members ready to move forward with never-before (publicly) discussed initiatives, along with little interest in gathering public comment or stakeholder input, not to mention engaging in meaningful debate with any commissioner not with the program. In fact, dissenting commissioners are often treated like little more than annoyances, as if the votes have already been tabulated and there's no point in getting anyone excited with dialog.

Administrators are allowed to meet privately with individual commissioners and as long as no more than one commissioner is present, there is not a restriction on them discussing issues that are before the board or likely to wind up there. It is therefore a common practice for various municipal administrators to build coalitions in this fashion, and who's to say they're not tipping their hands as to how many others are on board? Such a technique is one obvious reason we might end up with so much accord on such big issues, after so little public discussion.

That being said, I've already sung Mr. Hunzeker's praises as an administrator and would be quick to admit that I'd rather have him making decisions on most policies than the majority of commissioners I've observed in service. The problem is that for a man who obviously wields tremendous political power, Mr. Hunzeker's accountability to the public is minimal. The system is designed to have competent elected officials dictate policy, who then vote to hire an administrative expert to implement the finer details of the broader policies they decide upon. Instead, it seems that we have increasingly unqualified politicians who are therefore further reliant on the bureaucrats their incompetence empowers.

This is clearly not the way to achieve the best results. Many municipalities instead have elected administrators, who are bound by sunshine laws and accountable to the voters through reelection. The argument against such systems is that they politicize the person whose job it is to get things done, and that the most qualified managers are often repelled by the idea of having to enter the political arena and are therefore most likely to gravitate toward positions where they can avoid it.

I don't buy it. From school district superintendents to county bosses, to city managers, we've seen that our administrative posts are already deeply-politicized. The fact that they are not subject to voter approval only removes more of the supposedly public process from the public's view. If Ed Hunzeker were running for County Mayor, I'd likely vote for him. Still, I remain leery of what often seems like a puppet government, where most commissioners seem interested in little more than staying on the $75,000 gravy train until they can add another retirement to their income by appeasing the special interests to whom they owe their seats.


Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.


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