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Vero hunt for city manager: Govt. vs the ‘real world’

(Week of April 14, 2011)

One has 35 years of government experience, but no time in the “real world.”  The other has 30 years in that real world, and zero time working in government.

And both have applied to become the new Vero Beach City Manager.

It’s unlikely that on paper Richard Brown and Kevin Sullivan would apply for the same job. It’s unclear, in fact, that the two would have anything at all to talk about at a cocktail party – except maybe that each has a grown child working in Washington, D.C.

Or the men might chat about both being currently unemployed. Brown was terminated without cause as city manager of East Providence, R.I. and is on severance until June, while Sullivan said he took a “lucrative” retirement buyout deal and has been doing some consulting.

However, those two candidates – whose curriculum vitae couldn’t be more different -- interviewed last week for the Vero Beach City Manager job. 

The Vero Beach City Council has gingerly ventured into reforming City Hall, and with an eye toward running it more like a business. But at every turn, council members seem to become mired in delays and long explanations about what running it like a business actually means.

At one point while  being interviewed by Councilman Brian Heady -- in an attempt to shorten a long diatribe -- Sullivan asked Heady, “Do you have a question?” indicating that he would neither be intimidated nor sidetracked.

In his answers, Sullivan spoke in the language of business from his consulting home office in Winter Springs. He talked about doing case analyses to tackle budget problems, as he used to do for both Lockheed-Martin and General Electric. To his credit, Sullivan right away picked up on something that has befuddled anyone trying to make sense out of city budgets or financials.

“There’s no comparison to actuals.  It’s hard to tell if you came in over budget or under budget. There’s no variance analysis,” Sullivan said. “Where you’ve been is a good starting point for where you’re going.”

Also related to the budget, Sullivan commented on the boilerplate “Goals and Objectives” section listed at the top of each department’s budget. The experience of running finance and business operations for an aircraft company after 9-11, he said, gives him some idea of how to manage and retool an organization in a time of change and uncertainty.

“In the goals and objectives, I saw more of the status quo -- continue, continue -- that’s good if you’re happy with the service,” he said.

For example, Sullivan said he thought the police department might want to set a goal of a percentage of crime reduction or the city as a whole could set a goal of 5 to 10 percent improvement over last year’s operating expenses.

When it came to decisions about Vero’s utilities, Sullivan came at the questions from the perspective of being “competitive” with other providers of the same product of service, or at least figuring out if that’s possible.

Sullivan turned the tables on Heady and asked him some pointed questions about Vero. He also prepared a closing statement of sorts.

“The question for the Council is do you want someone with a little different perspective on running your business?” Sullivan said. “There are city manager types and if that’s what you’re looking for, have at that. But if you want someone out of the mold, someone who might shake the bushes a little more, I’m from the private sector.”

“We work at efficiency every day, we look at growth every day,” Sullivan said. “I’ve worked for two great companies and I’ve picked up some pretty good habits.”

Brown’s interview was conducted in the familiar language of how government is run, but he did indicate where he sensed there might be some room for improvement in the city budget.

“I’m coming from a community of 48,000 and you have 17,000 and the employee numbers are about 100 apart,” he said, adding that the difference in full-blown recreation programs and the utilities could account for part of the difference.

Actually, the number of employees is just about equal at roughly 450, despite the fact that East Providence has 31,000 more people.

Overall, Brown seemed more prepared and “in his element,” seemingly able to pick up city documents and decipher municipal nomenclature as his native tongue. He took the time to point out some specifics of what he might cut as city manager.

“You have four people in your attorney’s office. I don’t know what volume your legal work is, but that might be too many people,” he said.

“It’s easy to avoid making tough decisions about spending when you have revenues coming in, but as revenues decline, you really have to take a hard look at your organization in the long term,” Brown said.

“With a number of key department heads leaving, it’s an opportunity to look at your organization and how effective it really is,” he said.

He talked about agencies and programs, and about utility customers outside the city.

“It’s always bothered me that people were paying the same rates that people inside the jurisdiction paid,” Brown said about his previous government post. “Individuals outside my corporate borders were getting the same services as in the corporate borders,” he added, without the high property taxes.

“Certainly they (customers outside the city) are important because they’re customers and right now you’re not a regulated utility and if they put enough pressure on you you’re going to be a regulated utility,” Brown said. “My view is that governments ought to get together to provide those services that they can’t provide individually and to provide those at a reasonable rate.”

Vero has been criticized for a system that allows employees to stay in the same job for decades, not taking on any additional responsibility or furthering their training or education but making ever more money. Brown was asked what he thought of pay caps.

“I don’t like the idea of artificial caps on pay. I think the market does a really good job with that,” he said.

Brown described how he took on the local police union in East Providence, R.I. and won.

He touted himself as a tough negotiator and motivator.

When asked what his strongest leadership skill was, Brown responded, “The ability to get people to do what needs to be done when they don’t really want to do it.”

When asked about other qualities he has that, knowing what he’s been able to dig up about Vero Beach that might come in handy, Brown offered up his doggedness and made the pitch.

“I’ve got a good, strong background in finance management and I’m a problem solver.

“I don’t take no for an answer and I’m tenacious in getting where I need to be,” he said.

“I have a good grounding in emergency management and with FEMA. I can work with anybody and I don’t believe what I’m told at face value. I ask tough questions and am well-suited for this community.”

Sullivan said he has spent a total four hours in Vero Beach. Brown has never been to Vero but has visited Delray Beach, his late parents’ retirement home.

“Where do you vacation?” Heady asked.

“I don’t,” Brown said.

There are three more people yet to be interviewed, beginning next week. Vero firm HR Dynamics is handling the executive search and, ultimately, the top candidates will be compared with Interim City Manager Monte Falls, who is also up for the job.