Fernandina’s City Manager Search — Learn From The Shrimpers

Do like the shrimpers do. Or at least used to do here. Look locally. . .

Editor’s note: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insight on various topics in Marketplace.

— Steve’s Marketplace —

Fernandina Beach is known as the birthplace of the shrimping industry. We should learn from the shrimpers.

Cagey and wise, shrimpers guide their boats along a mapped course, use a crafted net that is wide but controllable, and stay relatively close to home. It’s good for catching shrimp – and would be effective for finding a new city manager for Fernandina Beach.

Instead, city commissioners voted underwhelmingly Tuesday to cast a wide, indiscriminate net by hiring a national search firm. The process will be streamlined, but long and tedious and fraught with pitfalls. Look what similar processes have netted in recent attempts.

To complicate matters, engineer Charles George will assume the interim city manager position next month. George was promoted to deputy city manager before Dale Martin was fired. Therefore, George is a product or clone of a city manager ousted by commissioners.

In addition, George was instrumental in the impulsive and short-sighted attempt to tear down the central pier of the marina, where popular Brett’s Waterway Café is. With no plans for a replacement, or remedy. Hardly an example of sound planning.

Meanwhile, the deadline for a new city budget is quickly approaching, like a tornado funnel. While the commission meeting had moments of frivolity, and tension, no one mentioned the looming budget. At the pace and direction of the search, it’ll be months before a new city manager is seated.

Will a wish-list budget from each department head get combined into a hodgepodge mess? And many thought the previous budgets were bloated under Martin, leading to a change of guard. No telling what we’ll get this year.

An easy answer may be right here. Fernandina Beach resident and fiscal conservative David Howe could assist with the budget process, as a consultant. Howe has impressive credentials, as treasurer in the public sector and as chief financial officer with Fidelity Investments Japan in the private sector.

Howe is also interested in the city manager position. If you think about it, hiring a local candidate like Howe would save time and money – two fundamental criteria. Paying for outside candidates to come in from far-away places like Connecticut (where Martin was from) will cost valuable time and money. And likely produce another big-government bureaucrat.

There are others in the area to consider. Like Mike Mullin, the former Nassau County manager, and Joe Gerrity, an outstanding former Fernandina Beach city manager.

Gerrity is close by, acting as the interim city manager at Atlantic Beach. Gerrity previously – and successfully – served as city manager there. He also had a productive tenure as Suwannee County manager.

Gerrity is also helping Atlantic Beach find a full-time city manager, without the complications of a search firm. He has expressed interest in assisting with the Fernandina Beach search, and maybe even becoming a candidate. Someone just has to ask.

Inevitably, with any search process, there are conflicts as grimy as the marina silt. For instance, a member of the appointed citizen’s committee advocated for removing Gerrity and hiring Martin as the city manager seven years ago.

Mullin got embroiled in the ugly lawsuit between the county and Rayonier, and left his manager position recently. However, Mullin did a stellar job while there (while also serving as county attorney).

Howe is an attractive candidate. He has talked on the phone with Mayor Bradley Bean, and hopes to meet with other city officials, within their broad search. Start the interviews immediately, with no time to waste.

With a little introspection, you might even find suitable candidates internally – or from former city employees. For instance, Gerrity was also a superb city commissioner here, pairing with now-Sheriff Bill Leeper to expertly guide the city for years, like two seasoned shrimp boat captains.

Getting back to the shrimpers, previous city leaders ran them and their boats off from the dilapidated docks north of downtown. They now shrimp out of Mayport. For years, their nets majestically rose above downtown, a constant reminder of our heritage.

Now, the city itself is caught in a net of uncertainty and indecision. After spending $10,000 or $20,000 or more for a search firm, commissioners will inevitably feel obligated to hire one of the produced candidates. Otherwise, they will be criticized for wasting money.

Instead, do like the shrimpers do. Or at least used to do here. Look locally, for prime produce.


Steve Nicklas is the managing partner of Nicklas Wealth Management in Fernandina Beach. He is also an award-winning columnist. His columns also regularly appear in weekly newspapers in Northeast Florida and in Southeast Georgia, and on his website at www.SteveNicklasMarketplace.com. He has published a book, “All About Money,” of his favorite columns from the past 20 years. The book is available on Amazon. He has also done financial reports for area radio stations and for National Public Radio in Jacksonville. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 904-753-0236.