Manatee and Sarasota counties have lots in common. But within a large swath of the business community there's a strong belief that one county is considerably more responsive than the other.
When Ed Hunzeker analyzes a department at Manatee County, where he's been the top administrator since 2006, one question he asks employees stands out.
That question: Do you feel bad when your customer — in other words, a taxpayer, even a business owner — fails? That can go from a complicated building inspection to misunderstanding a supposedly simple form.
If the answer is no then that employee, says Hunzeker, isn't long for county work. But if the answer is yes then Hunzeker says he wants employees to do whatever they can, within legalities and ethics, to help the customer pass the next time. Says Hunzeker: “You shouldn't want your customer to fail.”
Hunzeker is surely only one of many top county officials, on the Gulf Coast and statewide, who claim to bring a taxpayer-first mantra like that to their job. Randall Reid, who holds the same position in Sarasota County, also says he prioritizes accountability — to the county commission and to local residents.
But the general feeling in the Sarasota-Bradenton business community, based on multiple interviews with executives in a variety of industries, is Hunzeker, in comparison to Reid, is an administrator who “gets it.” Hunzeker won't kowtow to developers or companies, executives say, but he also realizes a vibrant business community is essential to a county's long-term success.
Hunzeker and Reid have worked together on several cross-county issues. But while they have mutual respect for each other and similar backgrounds that are heavy in prior government administration experience, each official attacks his job differently.
Hunzeker, for one, is more opinionated, in his words and actions, of privatizing government services than Reid. Over the last five years, for instance, Manatee County has hired private firms for a majority of lawn mowing services, engineering for infrastructure projects and the management of two public golf courses. Manatee County spokesman Nicholas Azzara says Hunzeker constantly works with his executive team to see if and where outsourcing makes fiscal sense.
In contrast, Sarasota County recently took what was outsourced, mowing and maintenance of roadsides and other areas, including athletic fields, and brought it in-house. That move, which Reid discussed before Sarasota County commissioners Feb. 8, could cost more than $1 million and add 40 people to the county payroll. The decision comes after a controversial period of inconsistent mowing, where a local resident was struck by a motorist and killed while cutting grass at a public median.
Reid says privatization, in general, should be a tool, not a must-do. “It's on a case-by-case basis,” says Reid. “You should use a mix. I'm not a rabid fan of privatization, nor am I always against it.”
Another key difference between the administrators is that after six years, Hunzeker has something Reid, who has been in office a little more than a year, doesn't: Widespread admiration from the business community and the county commission.
In fact, Manatee County commissioners like Hunzeker so much that earlier this year they voted to extend his contract to 2018 — four years past his expected retirement date. “(Hunzeker's) innovative leadership is almost unprecedented in Manatee County,” Commission Chairman Larry Bustle says. “The numerous examples of his leadership and management success have led to some huge cost savings and improved the way the county operates.”
Local homebuilder Pat Neal is one of many executives who praise Hunzeker. “Ed has always been very responsive,” says Neal, president of Lakewood Ranch-based Neal Communities. “He has done right by the business community.”
On the other hand, some local business leaders, including several developers, have yet to endorse Reid with the same vigor. Other executives say individual employees who make decisions merely reflect the leadership, which is why an anti-business pall still hangs over Reid.
For example, Medallion Homes CEO Carlos Beruff says Sarasota County officials recently told him a rather simple land amendment proposal could take at least a year to go through the system. A similar proposal, says Beruff, whose $57 million firm is based in Manatee County and has projects statewide, would barely take three months in some other counties.
“I told them I don't have to do business (in Sarasota County),” says Beruff. “I could do business in other counties that want me there.”
Reid says he's not anti-business and has worked well with the business community wherever he's been. Plus, he says he agrees with many business leaders who say growth is the only way to build a successful, and sustainable, community. “If you don't have a tax base,” Reid says, “you are very limited in what you can do.”
But it was Reid's reputation for pragmatism and ethics that won over Sarasota County commissioners. That board named Reid to the top post in November 2011. Reid replaced Jim Ley, who ran Sarasota County for 14 years until he resigned in May 2011 in the wake of a contract and procurement scandal.
Reid's charge, therefore, was to restore credibility to the way Sarasota County does business with vendors and other outside entities. “We've been trying to work to improve our procurement system,” says Reid, “and we've made great strides in that.”
A finalist for the top job in Sarasota County once before, in 1997, Reid says he's made a point to candidly and constantly talk about values. “The primary word I used during my first year, 2012, was 'ethics,'” says Reid. “The primary word I will use in 2013 will be 'accountability.'”
Reid says he's heard that some local business leaders say Sarasota County, at times, has leaned anti-growth or anti-development — charges at which he scoffs. “I don't think the county is anti-business,” Reid says. “Regulations exist for a purpose, but the last thing I want to do is burden people with cumbersome regulations.”
Hunzeker, meanwhile, says his success isn't necessarily based on a philosophy of government, but instead on a leadership theory that's a classic take from the business world: Hire leaders smarter than you, then get out of the way. “I tell people that if I know more about planning than the planners,” says Hunzeker, “we are in a lot of trouble.”
Adds Hunzeker: “You can hire technicians. (But) leaders are far and few between.”
Hunzeker, who also worked in administration in Hillsborough County, has hired nine new department heads, out of 13 departments, since 2007. He says a good department head in government, like a good employee, must be someone who can address a problem with the goal of making it right.
Another characteristic of Hunzeker's approach is to reward risk-takers — something not often done in government. But Hunzeker says a government can only be responsive, no matter the constituency, if fear of doing the right thing is eliminated.
“Sometimes people are afraid to make a decision,” says Hunzeker. “That's because in this line of work you make a mistake and you can read about it in the paper.”