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Plant City Observer Friday, May 12, 2017 1 year ago

OPINION: For the next city manager, keep looking elsewhere

Business owner Ed Verner shares his thoughts on finding the next city manager for Plant City.

Plant City is at a crossroads. Many have spoken with heavy hearts to me about our losing, unexpectedly and for the second time in barely three years, an excellent city manager to a competing job within our market area.  

I respect the work and past accomplishments of the city commissioners and former managers of Plant City.  All of them have worked with the City’s best interest at heart, and now they deliberate anew over how best to move forward in filling the post of city manager.  

Two philosophies emerge to guide us through this crossroad: We must find either A) Someone from “within” who can step in with local knowledge about the key personalities and sensitivity toward our history, or B) Someone from “outside” who has proven skills learned elsewhere who can bring successful and broader past experiences to bear on problems with a fresh perspective.  

This quandary is not unique to Plant City. Many small towns have struggled to endure the transition from a tight-knit community often led by a few key people — or, in some cases, a single Tennessee Williams-esque “Big Daddy” character — into a fully functioning mid-sized council-manager city.  I have dealt with each of the past Plant City managers going back to Nettie Draughon, and can see many changes between how our commissioners worked with them in the mid-1980s versus how they will be doing so as we approach the end of the second decade of the new millennium.  

Nearly 15 years ago, Plant City generally shifted away from the past precedent of seeking managers groomed from within and instead looked “outside” for skilled management with experience in the council-manager form of government.  This led to David Sollenberger in the post for over seven years, followed by Greg Horwedel for three and one half more. More recently, and with excellent success, Mike Herr now finishes up what has been over 14 and one half years of Plant City enjoying the fruits of “outside” perspective in the office of city manager.  

Each of these professionals brought time and a special value in challenging the City with an outside perspective to move forward in ways that, while at times may have been uncomfortable, were necessary.

Not only is there now a debate about where to look for a city manager, but there are also competing philosophies about how the City Commission should properly support that post without interfering at a level that becomes micromanaging. 

I think it is fair to say that in many ways, Plant City of old often operated more akin to a strong mayor-council form of government.  As such, not all commissioners were treated the same, and some of them felt a need to work hard and get deeply active into some departments.  They may have helped paddle the canoe through some troubled times, and were beloved for it.  Yet, despite good intentions, the old lines of communication and habits of ‘how we always used to do it’ become now, at best, less effective, or, at worst, downright harmful to the chain of command.  

These growth pangs and this transitional culture shock is not unique.  Plant City is emerging from being a small town that relied perhaps too much on a strong commissioner or two micromanaging departmental activities, into being a city with professional managers who are hired because they know how to do a job, and not because they need to be told by commissioners the details of how to do it.  

The recent 15 years have proven the benefit of “outside” perspective in the post of city manager. With no disrespect to any former or current City of Plant City employees, I believe Plant City should continue to struggle and learn how best to attract, nurture and retain people like Sollenberger, Horwedel and Herr.  

Ed Verner, a part-owner of the Plant City Times & Observer, is a business owner in Historic Downtown Plant City and president of the Plant City Photo Archives. 

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