County Administrator Harmer accepts Longboat Town Commission’s offer to become town manager

Town board to vote on the matter July 17

County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

On July 12, as the Sarasota County Commission was wrapping up its final meeting before its five-week summer recess, County Administrator Tom Harmer said he had just a few final items to mention.

For example, Harmer pointed out that the board’s first meeting after the break will be the budget workshop on Aug. 26, and the board will have its first set of regular meetings starting on Aug. 29.

Finally, he appeared to catch the commissioners a bit by surprise in announcing publicly what he said he had told them individually in private: He has decided to accept the formal offer from the Town of Longboat Key to replace Town Manager Dave Bullock, who will retire in January 2018.

(Bullock, who was deputy Sarasota County administrator for 14 years, became Longboat town manager in November 2011.)

“It’s been an extremely difficult decision for me,” Harmer added, noting that the Longboat Town Commission is scheduled to vote on the matter during its regular meeting on the afternoon of Monday, July 17.

If the board approves the contract, Harmer continued, “I would obviously, officially notify the [County Commission] of that and of my official resignation.” The latter, he said, would be effective in December.

Given Bullock’s plans to leave in January, “that should help facilitate a smooth transition,” if the Longboat board affirms his hiring next week, he added.

(In response to a question from The Sarasota News Leader after the July 12 discussion, county Media Relations Officer Jason Bartolone wrote in an email, “A final potential date for the end of [Harmer’s] employment hasn’t been determined as he has not yet submitted his resignation, but it is expected that it would be sometime in early December.”)

“Obviously, it’s been an honor to serve Sarasota County” and its residents over the past five years, Harmer said, noting that he is proudest of the customer service county employees provide “and the culture we have worked to create within our organization.”

In remarks to groups, Harmer has pointed to the consistently high ratings staff has received in the annual Citizen Opinion Surveys.

Harmer also thanked the commissioners for their understanding “during this process and your continued support during my tenure as your county administrator.”

“Well, thank you, Tom,” Chair Paul Caragiulo replied. “Certainly, mixed feelings about it. But, certainly understand the situation itself. Appreciate, as always, your level of professionalism.”

Commissioner Nancy Detert. File photo

Then Commissioner Nancy Detert — who was just sworn in as a board member in November 2016, after terms in the Florida House and Senate — said, “I’m trying to think of punishments for Longboat Key. They keep stealing our best and brightest, and I’m not taking kindly to that.” (Chief Engineer and Public Works Director Isaac Brownman will be leaving the county on July 28 after 17 years, county spokesman Bartolone told the News Leader; he will become Longboat’s public works director. A national search is underway for Brownman’s replacement, Harmer has announced.)

“I’m really brokenhearted that you’re leaving,” Detert told Harmer. I’ve found you to be one of the best I’ve ever worked with… You’re one of the best listeners I’ve ever worked with … You’re 10 quarts short on ego, which is amazing in your position. So you’ve ruined my life. That’s all I have to say,” she added, as some of her colleagues chuckled.

“I’m just in denial, Tom,” Caragiulo told Harmer.

Commissioner Alan Maio joked to Detert, “The beauty would be if you come up with some diabolical schemes to punish Longboat Key, Mr. Harmer will have to figure a way out for them, so there is an irony there.”

Then Maio told Harmer, “I understand completely the decision.” Maio added that he began working with Harmer after previous County Administrator Randall Reid hired Harmer in 2012. In fact, Maio added, Harmer’s service as county administrator was one significant factor in Maio’s decision to run for county commissioner three-and-a-half years ago. If the Longboat position is confirmed on June 17, Maio told Harmer, “We have you till December. … I will say publicly that I will absolutely miss you.”

Commissioner Charles Hines said he would “save the farewell tour [for Harmer] for later in the year. Still, Hines told Harmer, “I don’t think people really understand everything that you’ve done. You’ve steadied this ship. … I wish you the best of luck.”

Commissioner Michael Moran, who also joined the board in November 2016, pointed out that the average person watching the County Commission meetings would have “absolutely no way” of knowing the amount of work Harmer undertakes behind the scenes. “You’re just an absolutely class act,” Moran told Harmer. “Your leadership skills are just unparalleled, as far as I’m concerned.”

The Longboat offer

Longboat Town Manager Dave Bullock. Image courtesy of the town

During a telephone interview following the County Commission meeting, Longboat Town Manager Bullock stressed to the News Leader that “the Town Commission will make the decision” about Harmer’s employment on July 17. The board members “have to vote,” he pointed out.

Still, Bullock noted, during a special workshop on June 19, the Longboat commissioners asked him to pursue Harmer, “and I have been in pursuit.”

He indicated that he was aware Harmer would be addressing the matter during the County Commission’s final meeting this week, prior to its summer break.

Bullock provided the News Leader a copy of the July 12 memo he prepared for his town board in advance of the July 17 meeting.

On June 5, Bullock wrote in that memo, the Longboat Town Commission asked him to “begin a targeted search” for his replacement. Bullock had announced he would be retiring on Jan. 12, 2018.

Subsequently, Bullock continued in the memo, he “identified three possible local candidates I felt would have the right mix of experience, expertise, local knowledge and personal values for the Town Manager position.” Subsequently, he noted, one of them accepted a new position. “I approached another potential candidate who was not interested due to a recent change in job status,” he added. “The number one candidate on my list was Tom Harmer. In my judgment, Mr. Harmer has the background and temperament to work in Longboat Key. His experience in emergency services, as a city manager, a county administrator, and in the private sector make him fully qualified. His already existing and very valuable regional and statewide network can also be beneficial to the Town.”

The Town of Longboat Key is split between Sarasota and Manatee counties. Image from the town website

During a June 19 special workshop, Bullock noted in the memo, the Longboat Commission directed him “to actively pursue Tom Harmer” as the new town manager.

Members of the commission have met with Harmer individually since then, Bullock wrote, and he himself has had “extensive discussions” with Harmer in recent weeks. After learning of Harmer’s interest in the position, Bullock added, Bullock worked with the Longboat town attorney to prepare a contract for Harmer’s employment as town manager. “Mr. Harmer has executed [it] and I submit it with my highest recommendation for approval,” Bullock wrote.

Harmer’s annual salary would be $187,000, “with increases at the discretion of the Town Commission,” and the initial employment term would be five years, Bullock pointed out.

Harmer’s salary is $207,625.60, county spokesman Bartolone told the News Leader.

Harmer’s tenure with the county

County Administrator Tom Harmer (left) talks with County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. File photo

Then-County Administrator Randall Reid hired Tom Harmer in July 2012 as deputy county administrator, and Harmer began work in late August of that year.

The news release the county issued upon Harmer’s hiring noted that Harmer had about a quarter of a century of experience in local government, including almost eight years as city manager of Titusville, where Harmer also was executive director of the Community Development Agency. Additionally, Harmer had served as fire chief and emergency manager in Titusville.

Prior to that, Harmer was deputy fire chief in Tallahassee.

Before coming to Sarasota County, Harmer was senior vice president of the Pizzuti Companies in Orlando, “a high-quality company developing industrial and commercial projects in the Southeast,” according to the July 2012 county news release.

“Harmer assisted and facilitated projects and public-private partnerships to promote economic development, including new industrial facilities and infrastructure adjacent to Kennedy Space Center,” the news release stated.

At the time of Harmer’s hiring, Reid wrote, “I have both personal and professional knowledge of Mr. Harmer since I hired him in Titusville as my Fire Chief in the [mid-1990s]. He has maintained his zeal for public service, even while employed in the private sector, and I have watched his career develop as a professional manager.”

After the members of the County Commission fired Reid in October 2013, then-Commissioner Nora Patterson suggested the board ask Harmer — whom Reid already had promoted to deputy administrator — serve as interim administrator. Harmer’s first day of the job in that new role was Oct. 28, 2013. Then, on Jan. 28, 2014, the board members voted unanimously to ask Harmer to remove the “interim” from his title.

Harmer consistently has won accolades from commissioners during his annual reviews.