Alachua County at turning point: Repair bureaucracy

by Pierce Butler

Way back in early August, uncountable Trump scandals ago, the Alachua County Commission voted 4-1 to fire then-County Manager Lee Niblock. One of the final straws provoking that decision was a budget proposal for $50,000 for bonuses to help retain the six Assistant County Managers that Dr. Niblock had hired, while rank-&-file staff pay had stagnated for years.

Another precipitating cause had occurred in July, when a Board of Commissioners morning meeting had acknowledged twenty-five years of work on the part of training manager Suzanne Clausier – and that evening considered Niblock’s budget plan terminating her position (and that of a county horticulturalist, with neither named and the firings obscured by bureaucratic jargon).

Equal Opportunity Manager Jacqueline Chung spoke up eloquently against this and other abuses of authority, but few outside the County workforce understood the scope of the problem.

Niblock had also mandated that county employees not speak to any commissioner without an assistant county manager sitting in, a “loss of trust,” in Comm. Chair Ken Cornell’s words – and an indication of how Niblock had centralized power in his office and those of the cronies he had brought in from his past jobs in Marion and Sarasota Counties.

Aside from his autocratic management, Niblock’s almost-three-years tenure turned the county’s environmental protection, growth management, and related functions into a “pro-business” rubber-stamp process.

While a high-profile attempt by Plum Creek/Weyerhaueser Corporation to overturn the county’s Comprehensive Plan took the spotlight, permits and waivers have flowed freely from the County Administration Building, lacking or overriding the careful reviews which have kept our area so much less commercialized and overdeveloped than the rest of Florida.

After Niblock’s removal, County Attorney Michele Lieberman became Interim County Manager, with an understanding that she would return to her previous position by the end of this year. That has been extended through next year, with plans for a “permanent” manager to take office in 2019.

Another year is too long to leave Niblock’s top-heavy organizational structure in place.

In the past, county government functioned well and responsively with one Deputy Manager and one (or zero) Assistant Managers, and each department having hands-on directors making the daily decisions.

At present, we have no Director of Public Works (neither as a person nor an office): nearly all functions (other than separate charter offices such as Sheriff, Tax Collector, Supervisor of Elections, etc) are run by one or another of the Deputy/Assistant Managers brought in from out of the county by Lee Niblock.

Lieberman also inherited a legacy of “run government like a business!” inefficiency. For example, rather than supporting each other for the public benefit, departments must now pay each other for services rendered: a plumbing problem at Tourist Development means remuneration for Facilities; troubleshooting a computer connection at Animal Services necessitates a check to Information Technology; replacing a Solid Waste worker shifts money to Human Resources.

This process may provide some useful information, but its net effect is to invisibly shrink the unchanged budget allotment for those departments which do actual services for the people and environment of Alachua County.

Rushing the process of picking a new County Manager, arguably, gave us the Niblock fiasco in the first place.

In 2018, voters will select Commissioners for the seats now held by Ken Cornell and Lee Pinkoson, so the final choice will be made by the new Board after the Nov. 6 elections (an explicit factor in maintaining the interim managership for so long).

The search process will probably involve nationwide advertising through “head-hunter” firms and a wide array of candidates. But our Commissioners would do well to focus on those most likely to repair the prolonged damage to staff morale and retention since 2014, those who already best understand the needs of this County, its workers, and its citizens: the “internal” leaders who have kept things moving through Hurricane Irma, Plum Creek, the Bush recession, and the other stresses of recent years.

In the meantime, citizens must raise public pressure to (re-)streamline county government by eliminating the new and unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, uphold the high standards which have preserved us from Tampa- and Miami-esque runaway sprawl, and support the underpaid and overworked staff who do so much to keep Alachua County so livable.

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