Flagler Beach commission gives City Manager William Whitson poor assessment and some pointers

As an assessment for the chief executive of a local government, that of city manager William Whitson, his first since arriving here in May 2021, is not a triumph. It conjures up words like average, mediocre, passable, decent, tolerable. In the exact words of the ratings themselves, they average on the low end of “meets job standards.”

Whitson averaged 3.32 points on a scale of 5, making it a C, with anything between 2 and 3 requiring ‘improvement’ and anything below being rated ‘unsatisfactory’. It should have scored 4 or more for “exceeding labor standards” and 4.5 or more for being “outstanding”.

Whitson’s assessment is far from the latest and near-stellar assessment of his predecessor, the late Larry Newsom, although Newsom was not assessed during Covid, when his leadership suffered as fateful a downturn as his health. Yet for four years Newsom has largely kept the City Commission in a constructively lackluster, efficient and drama-free zone, unlike a few other local governments. The same cannot be said for Whitson’s tenure of late.

There were two peripheral assessments for Whitson. Jane Mealy, the only commissioner to rate Whitson above 4 (a former teacher who on the commission has traditionally been a generous grader), she gave him a score of 4.37. His support for Whitson has been as consistent and vocal as Commissioner Eric Cooley’s criticism has been acerbic and, of late, relentless. Cooley rated Whitson at 2.73.

But even excluding the two outliers, Whitson would still be in the middle range, and at an even lower upper boot: 3.21. That means Whitson is teetering back and forth on the kind of score that isn’t what a city would want for its $127,000 a year.

Even Ken Bryan, the chairman of the commission and next to Mealy, the only other strong supporter of Whitson on the commission, gave him a 3.08, only seven hundredths of a point above the mayor’s 3.01. Suzie Johnston, and equal to that of James Sherman. Sherman’s support for Whitson has been lukewarm and wait-and-see.

Commissioner Deborah Phillips is intern. A retired banker and current business owner who still exercises completely unbiased diligence with city business, it was she who convinced the commission to place Whitson on probation a few weeks ago after a series of serious missteps which embarrassed the Commissioners. Still, she gave him her highest rating, next to Mealy’s: 3.67, suggesting the possibility of a lifeline if Whitson recognizes her, grabs her and doesn’t waste her. .

But there is somewhat of a disconnect between the commissioners’ assessments and Whitson’s self-assessment, a single-spaced, six-page document that reads like a dynamic State of the Union address by a president with the Joe Biden’s approval rating.

Whitson acknowledges those few recent missteps – the failure to get the 4th of July fireworks, the failure to get a share of a $734,000 tourism capital grant that was there for the taking since arrival of Whitson. But aside from that, he still thinks he has “a very good working relationship with the members of the Commission”. (Of course, the phrase is cleverly executed: it doesn’t say which limbs, and that could be taken to mean certain members, as some other members felt it was. Namely: Cooley and Johnston).

He gives himself top marks in managing his people, creativity (his team “essentially reinvented the First Friday event,” he wrote) intergovernmental relations, though a recent emergency workshop on the sudden loss of sand north of the beach depicts a more chaotic and certainly not transparent relationship with the county in this regard, and it gave itself top marks on city finances and public relations

He has unquestionably been approachable and willing to take media interviews, as he notes in his self-assessment, even when the topics are distasteful. But he’s sometimes quick with the “no comments,” his skin can be translucent (he worked for eight years with his mentor, then city manager Ken Parker, who basically got him the job at Flagler Beach, and who could be intolerably imperious and condescending as a manager), and he confuses granting interviews with transparency, while he still keeps information much closer to the vest than necessary, even with commissioners.

Bryan pointed to elements of this thin skin when he asked Whitson in his assessment to “stop deflecting and not always accepting responsibility for things that go ‘south'” and to “change the way he projects a negative or condescending attitude during the commission”. meetings when called on an issue.

On the other hand, Bryan noted that he “would like the manager to stand up and defend his position on certain issues and document any issues and people who [purport] to threaten or criticize when he does his job and is correct in what he does. The language Bryan chose was telling: even pointing the manager in a more positive direction, Bryan’s words point to an underlying stream of conflict. For Bryan, in short, Whitson has all the goods, but he hasn’t fully shown them yet.

Cooley considered making a motion to sack Whitson in the weeks leading up to the assessment, so his scores reflected particular animosity towards the manager, including a few 1s along the way. “This has been a tough year for you with things like the lingering COVID effects and macro shifts in the employment landscape,” Cooley wrote, “but it’s your job as City Manager to address these challenges and I think that has been an area of ​​underperformance. The city is way behind on standards, projects and budgeted items with no resolutions brought to the table to date. There were also many instances of points of consensus emerging from meetings that were not started or ended with a sense of urgency. [Observation] do you choose and [choosing] tasks vs. timely completion of management. But he left Whitson with his own lifeline: “Hopefully there will be renewed focus on a sense of urgency about direction, plans and budget conservation in the coming year. Thanks for all you’ve done.”

Mealy, who once called Newsom the best manager the city had ever remembered, reflects on what amounted to Newsom’s decline at the end of his term and what he left behind, such as the struggles Whitson had to overcome. She sees better days ahead, but notes, ‘I wish Mr. Whitson wouldn’t use expressions that sound like ‘I don’t have time to deal with this'” when dealing with the public . “Such responses only increase negativity among residents and are counterproductive.” She asked for more reports on her work.

For Phillips, Whitson “must be set up to succeed” and delegate: “The city manager can’t do everything. It’s important that he builds a strong team of department heads who can not only handle day-to-day tasks but also scheduled projects,” Phillips wrote. She also wants more transparency, pointing out that meeting records are not always complete. “Not having complete and factual information makes it difficult to have proper discussion and education on agenda items. We need to have an informed conversation in our meetings, and by not having all the information, we can show mistrust.

But if Sun Tzu omitted to include a chapter in his art of war– perhaps intentionally – it’s about leaving things out of meeting packages: it’s the tried-and-tested tactic of local government executives who want to control meetings, control public responses and keep the media from reporting. have information before they themselves are ready to present it on their terms. It can circumvent the spirit, if not quite the letter, of the Open Records Act, although it can also trip up the very executives trying to control the message, as was the case with Whitson’s management. of the Funky Pelican dumpster problem a few weeks ago.

Sherman praised Whitson for his accessibility, but he limited his criticism or praise to several other categories due to his short tenure on the commission. He was only elected in March. Where he could praise him, he did: “One of the areas where I think Mr. Whitson has done a top job is in the imitation department. Since becoming commissioner, I have noticed that he has taken the lead in government matters to ensure that Flagler Beach complies with state and local government regulations before specified deadlines. One example that comes to mind is our wastewater treatment facility. But like his colleagues, Sherman has called for more transparency in the form of regular reporting.

Johnston, who found several points of praise – his lobbying of state and federal governments, his internal management, his initiative – also emphasized this point: she wrote that she “would like to see William implement a document in directly with City Projects and Strategic Plan”. goals with an update on current action steps as well as current status (in progress, completed, pending) for residents and the Board to view. »

Whitson in his self-assessment documents included a list of the $14.5 million in grants “since May 2021,” but the statement may be misleading: The $2.5 million grant from Covid funding has ended. turned out to be under his watch, but each local government got its share. It was the city equivalent of individual stimulus checks. The $10 million grant for the pier through the Federal Emergency Management Administration was the work of Newsom, itself the result of damage to the pier from Hurricane Matthew: it was not not whether the city would receive the money, but when. Again, this falls under Whitson’s watch. Those two grants represent 86% of the funding that Whitson’s paper says has taken place “since May 2021.” It also lists three pending grants totaling nearly $2 million.

The full ratings, including Whitson’s and her accompanying paperwork, are below.