Hillsborough BOCC weighs hiring Merrill as permanent county administrator
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12/01/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Interim County Administrator Mike Merrill


photo by hillsboroughcounty.org

Since the tumultuous departure of Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean last Spring, Interim County Administrator Mike Merrill has had reputation for running the county government with a steady hand. Today, County Commissioner Ken Hagan asked his colleagues to make Merrill the permanent county administrator. He stated numerous reasons for doing so.

"We have incredible value with Mr. Merrill, and I believe that he is sensitive to the economic climate and would not make any excessive demands when negotiating a contract. So, as a result of that, and given the cost of an executive search, and the fact that, in my opinion, Mr. Merrill has not only met, but exceeded our expectations, I think it's a foolish use of dollars to go through a national search."

Today's discussion comes after a drawn-out media spectacle involving former county administrator Pat Bean, who was dismissed in June after accusations that she secretly gave herself and several others pay raises, among other things. County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who called for Bean's departure nearly one year ago, compliments Merrill's ability to step in when no one had faith in county leadership.

"You came in when there was a lot of morale issues with the county staff. And we would expect that because we're looking at cutting budgets, eliminating positions, so people obviously are going to be upset."

Merrill has worked for the county for nearly 23 years, and prior to his current position he served as Assistant County Administrator for Utilities and Commerce. Today, all seven commissioners speak highly of Merrill, though some are weary of the process.

You've been able to provide leadership where leadership has been absent. You've been able to...I like the term 'Cool Hand Luke' approach in addressing some very controversial issues and tough decisions that we have to make."

Commissioner Kevin Beckner says Merrill might be the right person for the job, but for a governing body rocked by scandal less than a year ago, due diligence is key.

"And in consideration of the turmoil this board has been through, and the 200 plus thousand dollars that the taxpayer has spent so far from the termination of our previous county administrator, I think we owe it to our employees as well as our taxpayers to excercise prudence and due diligence to assure that we have selected the best and most qualified individual to be our county administrator. I believe that the only way we can do that is to do a national search."

The newest commissioners also weigh in. Commissioners Sandy Murman says she's not sure the cost of a national search could be justified at a time like this.

"And I think as good stewards of the taxpayer dollars, this coming budget cycle we have to be very mindful of going out and spending anywhere from a hundred to two hundred, by the time you get done negotiating a salary package, I mean you're talking a lot of money. Plus the fact that we are in our major budget cycle next year, and in the middle of this process it'd be too much change, too much '..' and I think we've got stability right now, we've got consistency and we have to keep on that track."

But County Attorney Renee Lee says there are some technicalities in the county charter that might make Merrill ineligible for permanent as county administrator.

"He is being appointed county administrator, there are three requirements in the charter, one for the Masters of Public Administration or related field, the management experience, and the residency requirement. As you know, Mr. Merrill lives in Clearwater."

The commissioners vote unanimously to keep Merrill’s status as interim, but to make it official in a one-year contract while they conduct a national search. The contract, which Merrill and Commission Chair Al Higginbotham will negotiate, may include a pay raise.

"You don't have a Masters, you don't have anything that goes along with the charter. Why are you so willing, Hagan, to break another rule?"

Merrill, sitting on the far side of the dais, says he'd be thrilled to keep his current position, but the county would be right to conduct a search.

"The most important thing is what works best for the community and for the board, and so clearly I see that sentiment and I do appreciate Commissioner Hagan bringing this forward, very much so and thank you very much for your confidence. But clearly I think there is a sentiment to do a search, and I think that's the right thing to do for the community and the right thing to do for this position to know that going forward you've got the right person, whoever that is."

The commissioners vote unanimously to keep Merrill’s status as interim, but to make it official in a one-year contract while they conduct a national search. The contract, which Merrill and Commission Chair Al Higginbotham will negotiate, may include a pay raise.

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