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Cape council grills manager candidates

By Staff | Mar 24, 2012

The schmoozing was over for the candidates for city manager when they arrived at city hall Friday for a day of tough questions from the Cape Coral City Council.

When it was over, the council could only agree that this will be a weekend of hard decisions on who they will nominate to take over the position when they arrive back at council chambers Monday afternoon.

“We have five qualified candidates who can lead this city to the next level,” Councilmember Rana Erbrick said. “I think there are a couple, however, who may be a better fit.”

“We have some good candidates. I’m happy with what we’ve put together,” Mayor John Sullivan said. “I have eliminated some, but it’s not over yet.”

After spending most of the day in one-on-one sessions with individual council members, it was off to chambers for the public grilling, which went much faster than anticipated.

Some council members, like John Carioscia and Derrick Donnell, asked most of their questions during the individual sessions.

Others asked the same questions to each candidate. Marty McClain asked them their impression of the city, what their vision is, and how soon they could start work.

“Our budget is coming up in July and whoever we hire will need to come up to speed quickly,” McClain explained.

Most of the candidates agreed they loved the city and were impressed by the people. But some gave rather blunt answers.

“We face the obstacle of having a mostly residential tax base and not business,” Leonard Sossamon said. “It’s a challenge that’s also an opportunity to create the right jobs.”

“We need to improve the infrastructure. If you let the streets degrade, for each dollar you’ll spend four dollars down the road,” John Szerlag said.

Sullivan asked the candidates how they would handle the job if they knew they were right and the council was wrong, and if they would say what council wanted to hear or needed to hear.

Nearly all said they would be honest and would follow the directives of council even if they personally opposed the board decision.

Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz didn’t deliver a question, but a scenario in which Cape Coral was hit by a hurricane, with chaos abound, and the candidates had to deliver a 35-second speech to the media.

“I would tell them I missed it. I was in Michigan playing golf,” Szerlag said, to Leetz’ chagrin.

The candidates’ answers were as diverse as their backgrounds, many reflecting on their past successes.

Carioscia asked Ed Green to elaborate on how he managed to stave off layoffs during tough economic times while county manager in Colorado while accumulating reserves.

“We always kept our labor costs at 26 to 32 percent. When we saw it climb, we used controlled attrition,” Green said. “We had no furloughs and gave small raises and built our reserves from $15 million to $118 million.”

Erbrick asked Barbara Lipscomb about her greatest achievement as Casselberry’s city manager.

“We had five city managers in two years. We got our finances in check, paid off outstanding debt, we put the streets on a paving schedule, which hadn’t been paved for years,” Lipscomb said.

Mark Needham was questioned by Kevin McGrail about his job as a Garrison commander at Fort Knox, Kent. and how the position was similar to being city manager.

“We dealt with similar situations as a city manager would. I had 2,000 people working for me. We had union issues and tough budgets,” Needham said. “I also had bosses who gave me guidance.”

Leonard Sossamon was also asked by McGrail about his achievements from his job in North Carolina and the challenges he’d face in Cape Coral.

“We increased the size of Concord from a city of eight square miles and 19,000 people to 50 square miles and 50,000 people in 12 years,” Sossamon said.

Finally, Szerlag was grilled by Erbrick about how he privatized many services previously performed by Troy, Mich., which was hit particularly hard by the economy.

“In a three-year stretch of the budget, we faced a 45 percent drop in revenue. If we didn’t change the structure, we would have gone bankrupt,” Szerlag said.

How to vote come Monday was the only real snag in the 90-minute session. Colin Baenziger, whose firm conducted the search, said a straw poll would be a good way to start.

City Attorney Dolores Menendez questioned that approach, as the city charter states a vote can only be conducted by a roll-call vote.

There was no question on how happy the council members were with the process.

“Things went great. It will be a tough decision. Finding a good fit will be most important,” McClain said.

“We’ll be digging into their resumes this weekend,” Erbrick said. “They were warm, personable, very strong. We’ll have a tough decision Monday.”