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Five Vie For City Manager Position, To Be Decided Thursday

By and

Come Thursday, the city of Gainesville will have a new city manager.

The city manager serves as the administrative head of the city of Gainesville and is responsible for daily operations, according to the city’s website.

The seven-member Gainesville City Commission interviewed the five finalists for the position on Tuesday, with each candidate having an hour to answer the same set of 15 questions. Each finalist will undergo one additional round of interviews with the commission on Wednesday, sitting down with each commissioner individually, before a decision is made on Thursday. The candidates will also interview with Mayor-elect Lauren Poe and commissioner-elect Adrian Hayes-Santos on Wednesday, but the two will not take part in the official voting process because they are not set to be sworn in until May.

The job will pay between $150,000 and $225,000 per year depending on the selected candidate’s experience.

The final candidates are:

  • Kevin Cowper, an assistant city manager in Auburn, Alabama, since 2007.
  • Anthony Lyons, the interim city manager in Gainesville since November.
  • J.J. Murphy, the city manager of Hobbs, New Mexico, since 2012.
  • Anthony O’Rourke, the city manager of Yakima, Washington, since 2012 before resigning Jan. 1.
  • Pat Salerno, most recently the city manager of Coral Gables, Florida, from 2009-2014.

“We’re very proud of our city here,” Mayor Ed Braddy told each candidate before the interview began on Tuesday. “There’s a lot we like about it. There’s some things we’d like to see done a little better, a little differently. We’re looking for a city manager who will help us reach those goals.”

How they were selected

After city manager Russ Blackburn resigned on Nov. 5 following a decade at the position, the city commission authorized the Human Resources Department to find a search firm to help fill the vacant position.

The selected firm was Colin Baenziger and Associates, an executive recruiting firm based in Palm Beach County, Florida.

Baenziger wrote in an email that 95 candidates applied for the job during a 20-day window between Feb. 5 and Feb. 24. From there, the applicants were screened and the list was narrowed down before being presented to the city commission. The city of Gainesville paid $20,000 to conduct the search.

According to a brochure presented by Baenziger during the call for applications in February, the ideal candidate for the city manager position is one who is action-oriented and progressive, seizing opportunities when they present themselves.

“The best candidate will be someone who can make the commission comfortable that their views are being heard and who will help bring them to consensus,” the excerpt reads.

Baenziger presented a list of 10 candidates from the search at an April 7 commission meeting, with the commissioners narrowing the field to six.

Rosylen Oglesby, who has been an assistant city manager in Portsmouth, Virginia, since January 2015 and has worked in city government in Virginia since 2006, withdrew her candidacy on Monday afternoon due to a family illness, narrowing the field to the five who currently stand.

The Candidates

Here’s a closer look at each of them, in alphabetical order by last name.

Kevin Cowper

Kevin Cowper considers himself approachable – a trait seemingly necessary for a manager in a city filled with University of Florida students and baby boomers alike.

And with the past eight years spent working with nearby Auburn University, the 51-year-old assistant city manager feels his experience coordinating and collaborating with a previous university makes him the ideal candidate to lead a city built around its higher education facilities.

“As they continue to grow and do new things,” Cowper said of UF, “that has to have an impact on the community, and I think it’s imperative to look for collaborative efforts with the university.”

As assistant city manager of Auburn, Alabama, since 2007, Cowper touted his experience working with a sizable university as an indicator of his preparedness.

While at Auburn, Cowper focused his efforts on downtown redevelopment and coordinating a growth-management strategy.

“I like to think of myself as having a vision and being able to articulate that vision to the people who work for me,” Cowper said.

Cowper’s foray into government management began as land development planner for Shelby County, Alabama, from 1991-95.

From there, he was named director of Planning and Zoning for Baldwin County, Alabama, where he served until 2001 before relocating to Pensacola as the Community Development director. Pointing to Gainesville’s reliance on higher education, Cowper said his recent experience working with Auburn makes him the ideal candidate to be the city’s next manager.

“I think Gainesville…the bar has been set very high,” Cowper said. “Maintaining that quality of life is going to be more and more difficult, so I would suggest the way to approach that is through innovation and change. Embracing the future and tackling it head-on, while working collaboratively with the community on those challenges.”

Anthony Lyons

Over the last five months, Anthony Lyons has worked as the interim city manager until the city commission could find a replacement.

And when the decision is made on Thursday, he’s hoping the commissioners don’t look too far.

As the only local candidate who qualified for the job and as the person who has held the position since November, Lyons is eyeing the chance to be more than just a placeholder for the next city manager.

“At this moment in Gainesville’s history, with my background, where we are, my knowledge of people and communities… I’m uniquely qualified.”

In addition to being the interim city manager — learning the ebbs and flows of the job — Lyons is concurrently serving as the City of Gainesville’s interim director of planning and services. He also served two separate stints as the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency Director.

His goal is to play an active part in city government, striving to make more than incremental breakthroughs while also making government citizen-centered.

“The government itself is perhaps designed more for the government than for the people that it serves,” Lyons said, “which is fine as long as we understand and acknowledge it… A lot of what we do is designed for the expert and not for the novice, and we need to reverse that.”

Lyons’ early career was focused on working for the people.

He started in rural Claremont, New Hampshire, a six-year stint capped as the city’s Planning and Development Director for three years.

His first public service project in the Granite State involved reviving the multi-building mill district.

With a limited budget and finite resources, Lyons led the charge in bringing the district back to life.

It’s what Lyons views as the biggest success of his career, but in the small town of 12,000 people, he knew he wouldn’t stay there for long.

In 2006, shortly after his son Asher was born, Lyons and his wife decided it was time to move.

After traveling the country for six months, they landed in Gainesville.

Outside of a year Lyons spent working in Boise, Idaho — a decision he said was simultaneously a wonderful and awful thing to do — they never looked back.

Come Thursday, he’s hoping to stay where he is.

J.J. Murphy

J.J. Murphy walked into the interview prepared.

In addition to the candidate report provided to the city commission by Colin Baenziger and Associates, Murphy handed each commissioner a blue folder on Tuesday.

Inside it: His 90-day plan for if he becomes Gainesville’s next city manager.

He knows the problems that he wants to see fixed in Gainesville: utility rates, crime, a lack of citizen-first mind set.

And he knows that for any of it to be accomplished, he’ll need to be involved in creating the change.

“You just can’t be a head cheerleader to do that,” Murphy said. “It can’t even be done just from the top. The culture change needs to be done from the bottom.”

When it comes to getting work done, Murphy takes a hands-on approach. He wants to be out in the community, hand-in-hand with the people he’s supposed to be serving.

While serving as the city manager in Hobbs, New Mexico — a post he’s held since August 2012 — he started a program called Operation S.W.I.T.C.H., the acronym standing for Stop Working In The City Hall.

It’s an initiative he created to get the city government officials out in the public, an opportunity for residents to see that their officials are more than just a name.

“I do not lead by sitting behind a desk,” Murphy said. “I’ll be out in front to make sure we all are working toward the same goal.”

And in the midst of all of this, Murphy strives to stick to his roots.

He’s a father to five daughters, all between the ages of 5 and 15.

He has 18 years of military experience, two years as a spokesman for the Air Force and 16 as a watch supervisor.

He volunteered to be deployed to Djibouti, Africa, in 2008 and Haiti following the earthquakes in 2010 to coordinate search and rescue missions.

And regardless of the situation he’s put in, he does his best to be prepared.

“That’s who I am,” Murphy said. “In the community, you’re going to see me.”

Tony O’Rourke

Tony O’Rourke wasted little time detailing his plan for if he becomes the city’s next manager. He doesn’t plan on approaching the job as a government position.

“I’m impatient,” O’Rourke admitted. “Time is money, and I’m driven by the marketplace and the customers, and not by government time.”

Referring back to his 14 years spent as executive director of the Beaver Creek Resort Company in Eagle County, Colorado, O’Rourke told city commissioners he prioritizes feedback from the community.

“When I was in the private sector, I oversaw a world-class resort that got 3 million guests per year. We surveyed daily,” O’Rourke said. “Cities need to do the same thing, but I see over and over again that they’re not getting the basic research data from their constituents.”

Although this business-minded approach has led O’Rourke to city manager and executive positions around the country, including stops in Tallahassee and Coral Springs, his tenure has not been without controversy.

O’Rourke most recently served as city manager of Yakima, Washington, since 2012 before leaving his post Dec. 1, 2015.

His departure ended in controversy – a Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board article called for the city council to oust O’Rourke – that has followed him to Gainesville.

Bruce Smith, publisher of the Yakima Valley Business Times, sent an email to the Gainesville City Commission discouraging the city from hiring O’Rourke.

But O’Rourke remained confident Tuesday that he’s the right choice to be the city’s manager, citing his previous success as an indicator of the effect he can have on poverty in Gainesville.

“There’s almost a tale of two cities that needs to be bridged here,” O’Rourke said. “What are you going to do to address the issues of the portion of the population that’s getting left behind?”

Patrick Salerno

Patrick Salerno sees the potential in Gainesville.

As he finished his tour of the city on Tuesday, the Gainesville city manager candidate envisioned a hub for entrepreneurial success.

But for those unfamiliar with Gainesville, he said only two aspects in particular stand out: UF and Shands Health Hospital.

With almost 25 years of city manager experience in the state of Florida, Salerno said he believes he has what it takes to help change that mindset and make Gainesville a viable competitor.

“The larger community – Florida as a whole, the southeast Atlantic region – [needs to] view Gainesville not just with those two parameters,” he said. “It needs to be seen as a place for entrepreneurial behavior to thrive.”

Salerno has had success as a city manager before.

He spent five years as the city manager in Coral Gables, Florida – the city of his alma mater, the University of Miami – after spending 18 years as the city manager in Sunrise, Florida. During his tenure in Sunrise, the longest the city has ever had, he negotiated the finance plan and construction of the BB&T Center, home of the Florida Panthers hockey team and the second-largest arena in the southeastern United States.

To complete the deal, Salerno had to successfully make a deal with Wayne Huizenga, the 2005 World Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young as well as the owner of the Panthers, Miami Heat and Miami Marlins at the time.

It was an experience early on that gave Salerno a confidence boost in what he was doing.

“I was very fortunate – at least I think so – to have negotiated with him,” Salerno said. “He was probably one of the premier negotiators in the world.”

Now, Salerno carries that confidence and success to any job he has.

The next place he hopes it will be is Gainesville.

“If you want to take Gainesville to the next level – and by that I mean make Gainesville a world-class community – then I’m your person,” Salerno said. “ … If you’re satisfied with incremental changes to the quality of life in Gainesville, I’m not your person.”

About Jordan McPherson

Jordan is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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