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Manager brings aggressive style

Susan Boyer impresses Crystal River council members with her bold ideas, something that rubbed previous employers the wrong way.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002

CRYSTAL RIVER -- Susan Boyer's contract was still drying during the Dec. 9 City Council meeting when she announced her first initiative: a complete review of the land development code.

It was a bold move, perhaps, given the scope of the project and the fact that Boyer was so new. But a few days later, she was preparing to seek a consultant to review the code.

Her action left an impression. "It tells me she has looked into what needs to be done for the city's best interest," said council member Kitty Ebert. "It is something that has been talked about for several years and no one has done it. She is taking charge."

Assertiveness is a trait Boyer has exhibited throughout her life, friends and former co-workers say.

Crystal River's new city manager has used her strong will and determination to her benefit. At the same time, it has led to criticism that she tries to do too much or is inflexible.

"I have extremely high expectations of myself and I have pretty high expectations of the people who work for me," Boyer said from her new office. "I want to see things get done" but in the right way.

Boyer, 41, replaced Phil Lilly, who resigned after one year to take a security job with the federal government.

Comparisons between the two are bound to sharpen over time, but one difference is immediately clear: While Lilly came to the job with limited municipal experience, Boyer has made managing local government a career, working in a number of Florida communities.

"She has the background, she has the education," said council member John Kendall. "She understands what our problems are and she knows what the solutions are, or at least she knows the direction to go."

Only the second woman to hold the position since the city was incorporated in 1903, Boyer is the ninth manager since 1990.

The trend, aided by the city's feuding political factions, has given Crystal River a statewide reputation, though other cities, including those Boyer has worked for, have similar experiences.

She said she would have kept far away had she not served as interim manager and gotten acquainted with City Hall, its employees and its politics.

As did Lilly, Boyer says one of her first tasks will be to foster better feelings among the competing interests.

"We need to take this time to heal and try and bring the city back together as a family, working for the common cause," she said.

"We've gotten so tangled up in our own political and internal turmoil that we have lost track and focus of trying to take stock and pride in our city."

She said she takes comfort in two recent developments: The decision to make council terms last four years instead of two and the long-term contracts the council extended to herself and Lilly.

"The groundwork has been laid," she said. "Now it's my job to begin internally to work with our staff and say, 'I'm going to be here, you're going to be here, let's set a course.' "

A military 'brat' and a scholar

Boyer's own course is full of turns. She was born in Great Falls, Mont., which takes its name from the Missouri River. She was the only child of Marilyn and Ronald Boyer, who was an officer at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Her father's profession kept the family on the move. They lived in North Dakota, Alabama, Illinois and Italy, among other places.

"It was kind of exciting," she said. "That's maybe one of the things that attracts me to being a city manager, the ability to meet new people and experience new things."

By the time she was a teenager, the family had settled in West Palm Beach. Susan attended Forest Hill High School, where she was junior class treasurer, and a member of the student council, the French club, the marching band and the National Honor Society.

"Anybody would be lucky to have a daughter like her," said her father, who is 69. "She was a very smart kid and very dedicated. Even for band, she really put herself into it 100 percent."

She went to the University of Florida, the same school her father attended. Boyer, whose 1990 Honda Accord sports a Gator sticker, follows the football team dutifully. "Once a Gator, always a Gator," she laughs.

She entered Florida thinking she would want to become a computer programmer. But by her junior year her interests had changed and she switched her major to political science with a minor in environmental studies.

"I wanted to have more options available to me when I graduated," she explained. After earning her degree in 1985, Boyer enrolled in graduate school at Florida, studying public administration.

Edwin "Buzz" Eddy, a Florida graduate who is now manager for the Panhandle city of Gulf Breeze, said Boyer was an eager student. "I've always known her to be willing to engage and work," he said.

He recalled that Boyer persuaded the university to host a reunion for the graduate school. She called alumni and wrote letters.

"People sat back and said, 'Gee we ought to do something.' But nobody was willing to roll up their sleeves and get it done. She was willing to jump in there," Eddy said.

Between her first and second year of graduate school, Boyer took an internship with the city of Palm Beach. If she had any doubts about entering local government, the experience erased them.

"No two days are the same. One minute you may be dealing with garbage and the next minute you are dealing with an employee problem. And you have the opportunity to be involved in projects -- to see something start and see it finish and have something to show for it," she said.

A self-described workaholic, Boyer said her life outside the office is fairly lackluster. She enjoys riding bikes around her home in Lady Lake and reading John Grisham and Carl Hiaasen novels.

She frequently attends softball games with her husband, Harry Wood. Snappy Tomato Pizza, the team Wood manages and plays third base for, won the gold medal in the Florida Senior Games in Lakeland on Dec. 7. Boyer does not have children.

The road to Crystal River

Boyer landed her first professional job in September 1987 as a planner for the city of Kissimmee, a position she assumed after holding an intership there. Less than a year later, she had moved to Port Orange to become an assistant to the city manager and then assistant city manager.

In 1994, Boyer was hired as city manager for Avon Park, population 8,300. She counts her accomplishments there as securing grants to improve the airport, upgrading the computer systems and improving police services.

"She was innovative," said former City Council member Wally Randall. "She didn't necessarily accept the fact that things were always done this way. She was continuously looking for ways to save the city money and do things more expeditiously."

Boyer, he said, was fair but tough, expecting her employees to work hard. But her strong will and against the grain thinking made some people uneasy.

"She had a tendency to be a bit controlling. She had to have her finger on everything," said Mayor Tom Macklin.

Her downfall would seem at home in Crystal River. In May 1996, Boyer was called to a special meeting in which council members criticized her management style and some of her decisions, including deducting the cost of a lost $500 pager from a firefighter's paycheck.

Boyer and others attributed some of the friction to lack of direction from the City Council, according to reports in the News-Sun of Sebring.

"There were no major problems, but maybe a little bit of her being too strong," said Deputy Mayor Sharon Schuler.

"You have different personalities (on the council) and some had been in the city for a long time," Schuler said. "Some people had problems with Susan; I got along with her."

Apparently seeing a hopeless situation, Boyer began working with the city attorney on a buyout plan. But during an August meeting, the council voted 4-3 to fire her before she could resign.

After a brief stint as interim assistant city manager in Haines City, Boyer was hired as town manager for Lady Lake in February 1998.

Her tenure there was not as rocky as Avon Park, according to news reports and interviews, but it had familiar tones. Boyer was credited for recruiting able department heads and working harder than anyone else.

"She spent ungodly hours at her job," said former town Commissioner Bill Reed. "Unfortunately she didn't utilize her staff as much as she could have. She kind of ran the show."

That caused her some trouble as Lady Lake worked to build a new town hall. Boyer had disagreements with the architect and contractor that caused delays and frustration, Reed and others said.

"I think all three of them were kind of strong-willed and it got to the point where we weren't getting anything done," Reed said.

But Boyer came into office while the problem-heavy project was already under way, said Lee Hokr, also a former commissioner. "She got thrown into a pool full of crocodiles."

Boyer was fired, by a 3-2 vote, in August 1996. "She came in at the wrong time," said Hokr, who was on the losing end of the vote. "There were too many fires to put out."

From there, Boyer took a slight departure, becoming an independent contractor for the city of Lake Mary, taking on the job of rewriting the city's personnel manual to conform with current law and practices.

In October 1999, she became interim risk manager for the Lake County Board of County Commissioners.

Her final stop before Crystal River was in Leesburg, where she was an administrator with the Medical Examiner's Office that serves Citrus and four other counties.

Addressing questions of her past criticism, Boyer said it came with the job and made no apology for being strong willed.

"If you go into a situation where the status quo isn't working it's really hard sometimes to make change," she said. "Sure, it's going to rub some people the wrong way. But in the end, generally speaking, everybody is pretty happy."

-- Alex Leary can be reached at 564-3623 or .

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