By Dale Martin
July 9, 2021
The past several weeks of my writing efforts have been devoted to offering insight into property taxes and millage rates. Those efforts were to provide a foundation of information as the budget preparation process for next year’s budget nears completion. My recommended budget will be presented to the City Commission on July 19 and then to the community at the City Commission’s regular meeting the following day, July 20.
While budget preparation rightfully and obviously requires significant attention by me, the preliminary budget work is developed by the various department directors. For several of those directors, this year’s budget effort is their inaugural budget preparation with the City of Fernandina Beach. The transition from several long-tenured City staff to recently hired successors has proceeded remarkably well and these “rookies” deserve kudos for their efforts.
Two of the director positions took considerable time to fill: Human Resources Director and City Engineer. Ms. Robin Marley retired in early 2019 following many years of service to the City as the Human Resources Director. With no internal candidates to succeed Ms. Marley, the City, with the assistance of a professional search consultant, conducted a nationwide search for interested and qualified candidates.
Simultaneously, and utilizing the same search consultant, the City sought candidates to serve as a City Engineer. Mr. John Mandrick, who served for many years as the Utilities Director before retiring in late 2020, was an engineer, as is current Utilities Director Andre Desilet. The duties and responsibilities of the utilities systems (water, wastewater, and stormwater) often precluded Mr. Mandrick and Mr. Desilet from providing additional needed engineering support and project management for both small and large scale City projects. Many years ago, the City did have a designated City Engineer, but that position had been vacant prior to my appointment in late 2015.
The initial search for candidates for those two positions began in late 2019 and did attract several quality candidates. Following an initial screening of those candidates, three candidates were selected for interviews. Due to the scattered location of some of the candidates and to be consistent, all interviews were conducted remotely via telephone or Skype (this was pre-pandemic, so platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other now familiar electronic interfaces had yet to be widely utilized). Joining me for the interviews were several other incumbent directors.
Both series of interviews led to unanimous consensus of a top candidate. Those candidates, in turn, were offered the respective positions. Two critical factors, however, led to those candidates declining the offers: pay (especially in relation to the candidates’ [and their partners] current compensation) and the onset of the pandemic (with the uncertainty of the pandemic, the candidates, who were serving in senior management positions, were hesitant to depart under those conditions). Back to the drawing board for another application period and series of interviews.
Following the same general process, though, the second round was the proverbial charm and the City has two exceptional professionals now serving this community. Ms. Denise Matson began her service with Fernandina Beach almost a year ago. Technically, this may not be her first budget “rodeo,” but I seem to remember that she was definitely late to the party last year (Ms. Teresa Bryan and Ms. Antoinette Brown, junior Human Resources staff filled in admirably for over a year in the absence of a Human Resources Director). Ms. Matson formerly worked for the City of Naples, departing that community after thirty years of Human Resources service, of which over twenty years she served as the Director.
Ms. Matson brings unprecedented public sector human resources experience to Fernandina Beach. That experience will be critical to address several challenging personnel issues. These issues include a comprehensive review of the City’s Pay and Classification Plan, which has largely been unchanged for many years. Ms. Matson will also play a key role at my side during collective bargaining negotiations for contracts with the City’s general labor force and the firefighter/paramedics. She will also lead a review of the City’s pension plans.
The City originally had a strong candidate (with extensive local ties) for the City Engineer position, but the second effort recruited another strong candidate with a local affiliation. Mr. Charles George, despite living in Yulee, served for many years as a structural and marine engineer for agencies throughout the southeastern United States, most recently in Georgia. His Georgia service included responsibilities overseeing planning, zoning, building, and code enforcement operations. Because of this extensive background, I will likely reconstitute the City’s former Community Development Department (Building, Planning and Conservation, and Code Enforcement) as a Community Services Department (adding Parks and Recreation and Information Technology) under the leadership of Mr. George.
A final, relatively easy recruiting effort “stole” Ms. Monica Benischeck from Nassau County employment to succeed Ms. Nicole Bednar who served as the City’s Administrative Services Manager. Ms. Benischeck had served most recently with Judge Wesley Poole, who retired. With his retirement, and my familiarity with Ms. Benischeck through Veterans Treatment Court, I thought that Ms. Benischeck would be approachable to serve in a new role. She has filled that role beyond all expectations, and immediately garnered the respect of other City staff. She is a wonderful work associate and I am glad to have her on staff.
Other staff vacancies on a smaller scale have been successfully filled. I am proud of the staff that represents the City of Fernandina Beach. I think they are proud to serve the City as well. The City does have additional vacancies if others are interested in working to support this community. Thank you to the staff who serve.