Following an eight-month search that cost Plant City around $27,000, the City Commission tapped current Assistant City Manager Bill McDaniel to be the new city manager in a unanimous vote.
Quite literally, Bill McDaniel started at the bottom. Now he’s here, Plant City’s newest city manager, the top of the city’s administrative pyramid, the CEO to the commission’s executive board.
In Plant City’s commission-manager form of government, the commission is responsible for hiring three positions: city attorney, city clerk and city manager. The city manager is then responsible for the rest of the city’s approximately 400 employees, carrying out the city’s daily operations and executing the will of the commission, which is usually determined based on information and recommendations provided by the city manager.
McDaniel started his career in Plant City as a rookie cop with the Plant City Police Department in 1985, rising to become the department's chief for 16 years, until 2012 when he was selected by then-City Manager Greg Horwedel to be assistant city manager. McDaniel’s hiring as city manager marks a full rise from entry-level employment with the city to holding its top staff position.
The City Commission Monday voted unanimously to hire McDaniel.
“I’m still kind of stunned. This is obviously a very big day for me personally as well as professionally,” McDaniel said. “Your vote is a tremendous vote of confidence. For me, I feel that it has helped me to start out on the right foot as your city manager. I’m very excited to work in this new capacity for a community I call home.”
Commissioners took nearly two hours to come to their decision. Each commissioner, in turn, weighed the pros and cons of the six finalists who spent most of the last week interviewing with city staff and citizens.
Initially, Vice-Mayor Bill Dodson was the only commissioner who did not list McDaniel as his top choice, signaling a possible 4-to-1 vote. Dodson, however, quickly changed his vote to give McDaniel unanimous support, citing the importance of teamwork and consensus building.
“I am a team player and as a team player I certainly have paid attention to the fact that there’s four among us that have said their principal choice within their top three is represented by our current assistant city manager,” Dodson said. “From my point, under that basis, I would certainly be a part of that team. I would certainly be a part of consensus building.”
Plant City’s search for a new city manager began in May following the sudden departure of Mike Herr to become Winter Haven’s city manager. Kim Leinbach, Temple Terrace’s retired city manager who was at the time serving as its mayor, then became Plant City’s interim city manager. In July, the commission voted to have executive recruitment firm Strategic Government Resources perform a nationwide search for city manager.
The search netted 55 candidates, with SGR representative and former Lakeland City Manager Doug Thomas bringing 35 to the attention of the commission, who selected seven semifinalists last November. After one of the candidates dropped out, commissioners decided to take the six remaining candidates to the finals, which included bringing them in for a near-weeklong interview process on the taxpayer’s dime. The search, which led back to Plant City’s internal candidate, carried a price tag of about $27,000, according to Finance Director Diane Reichard.
A matter of experience
Most commissioners cited McDaniel, along with Shawn Sherrouse, Lakeland's assistant city manager, as the top two candidates. Another with local experience, Jonathan Evans, who spent nearly four years as city manager in Haines City, was also in the running. Though impressed with his presentation, commissioners said Evans seemed too “green” and lacked the experience they hoped to find, despite Evans having city manager experience while McDaniel and Sherrouse do not.
“He’s definitely a rising star. He had the most energy of anyone that was involved. His approach to community transparency and community engagement, transparency in government, he offered that. It wasn’t something I had to pull out of him. That’s very important to me,“ Commissioner Nate Kilton said. “He’s committed to education and lifelong learning. He’s limited, though, in his experience.”
McDaniel, Sherrouse and Evans are all members of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), but Evans is the only ICMA Credentialed Manager of the three. The ICMA is a leading association of city and county government employees. ICMA Credentialed Managers must have at least seven years of executive experience. According to the ICMA site, “generally speaking, department head, assistant to, and administrative assistant experience does not meet the criteria for full credit” for ICMA credentials. Sherrouse and McDaniel have yet to hit the seven-year mark, though their past experience could qualify them to receive partial credit if they applied.
Ultimately, it seemed to be intimate knowledge and lifelong commitment to Plant City that won McDaniel the job. With a number of major projects — the midtown redevelopment and pavement management plan, for instance — in the works, commissioners said it is important the city doesn’t lose steam.
“Bill McDaniel is a proven leader. We know exactly what we are getting with Bill. Bill can move a few doors down the hallway and we never miss a beat,” Mayor Rick Lott said. “We have 33 years invested in Bill McDaniel, but Bill McDaniel has invested his life into Plant City. I’ve always leaned toward promoting from within when I have a qualified candidate. I don’t think anyone in this room, whether you like every decision he’s made over his career or not, we can’t deny he’s qualified.”
The commission chamber in City Hall was filled with residents during the meeting, most of whom spoke to support McDaniel. Only Betty Patton offered a different opinion.
“The last thing we do at night is go home and we want to feel safe in our house,” Patton said. “I don’t know Billy the way they do and they don’t know him the way I do. But I can tell you this city will never be the same if he is made city manager. It will never be good again.”
McDaniel’s tenure as police chief was marked with some controversy. Beginning in 1999, the Plant City Police Department was under federal investigation for officers lying, stealing from crime scenes, searching homes illegally and misleading judges. Several officers were prosecuted and some cut deals, accusing McDaniel and Commissioner Mike Sparkman, who was mayor at the time, of being in on the corruption. Sparkman and McDaniel denied involvement and were never charged.
While at PCPD, McDaniel said he was responsible for taking “a department stuck in the ‘70s” and bringing it to the “cutting edge.” He pledged to be a catalyst for change in Plant City and not an agent of the status quo. McDaniel said he recognizes a number of deficiencies throughout the city’s structure, like an over-complicated phone system and convoluted permitting process, which he will work to fix once in charge.
“I think you look at anybody where they are in their career right now, look at lessons learned and do they have the ability to move forward in a positive direction. I think he’s used them to make him a better person,” Danny McIntyre, a Plant City resident, said. “I think when you go through that kind of chaos it makes you stronger. He didn’t leave that process bitter, from what I can tell. He used it to make himself better.”
The city will now negotiate McDaniel’s contract with an expected annual salary of $150,000, about $17,000 more than he makes now. If approved, that would be the same starting salary as Herr. Commissioners are expected to vote on the contract during the Feb. 12 commission meeting. Leinbach is expected to work through the end of February as McDaniel transitions into his new role.
“We have a big year ahead of us and we’re hiring you because we expect you to bring it home. We know you’ve got big shoes, big shoulders,” Lott told McDaniel during the regular commission meeting that followed the commission’s decision making meeting. “I think tonight we gave you the confidence that we know — one hundred percent — that all those that are supporting you are behind you. Those that have doubts, by the end of this year, they’ll be believers as well.”