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Controversy no stranger to county finalist

The job history of the top administrator candidate includes being fired and weathering a racial controversy.

By ASJYLYN LODER
Published January 15, 2006


Billy Preston Beckett had typos on his resume, spent less than a year at his last job after being forced out of his previous job in the midst of a racial controversy, and was fired from the job before that.

Yet Beckett, one of four finalists competing to become Hernando County's next administrator, won top ranking from the search committee. Beckett will try to maintain that edge Tuesday in his interview with the County Commission, where he will compete against former Citrus County Administrator Gary Kuhl, former Bay County Manager Pam Brangaccio and Gary Shimun, assistant city manager of Pembroke Pines.

If the informal rankings set by the search committee carry any weight, Beckett's nearest threat is Kuhl, a well-respected local leader widely viewed as a consensus builder. The committee ranked Shimun third and Brangaccio fourth.

To have a chance, Beckett, 56, will have to convince the five commissioners that he will bring some much-sought-after stability to county government, and that his tenure will not be marred by the controversy that colors his past.

Beckett, a native of West Virginia, has spent more than three decades working in government, the last 20 years in Georgia. Most recently, he served less than a year as executive director of the Coosa Valley Regional Development Center in Rome, Ga., a regional government agency serving 10 counties.

Beckett left the job in July, chalking up his brief stint to an exhausting commute. He tried, unsuccessfully, to relocate to Rome, he said. Finally, the daily, four-hour commute wore him down.

Barbara Snead, his executive assistant, said, "I loved him. I cried when he left."

She said Beckett stepped in at a tumultuous time and quickly earned the trust of the staff.

"As with any new person coming in, they were kind of uneasy about him," she said. "But in no time, he just won them all over, and they thoroughly enjoyed working for him."

When Snead's husband became ill and died, and she fell behind in typing up board meeting minutes, Beckett helped her catch up, she remembered.

"He's just so caring and kind and compassionate," she said. "He was good for us, and he was here at a time when we needed him, needed somebody like him."

When Beckett took the job at the development center in 2004, he had just come off a tough three-year stretch as city manager of Riverdale, Ga., a city wracked by racial controversy and struggling under a change in leadership.

"The sun and the moon and the stars didn't align toward the end there," Beckett said, adding, "I think there was a tremendous amount of pent-up frustration with some things that had happened in the police department."

A Department of Justice Report released in early 2004 found that black officers were disciplined more harshly than white officers, that black and white officers used racial slurs, and that high-ranking white officers said too many blacks were being hired, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"I've never seen anything like it," Beckett said recently. "It was brought on by factions in our community and factions in our police department. . . . It was almost like a political takeover."

Sandra Meyers, a retired city clerk who worked in Riverdale for 31 years, said, "He just got caught in it."

Ron Gossett, director of public works, who has been with the city for 25 years, said, "I really hate that he got to be the centerpiece of it."

Both counted Beckett as one of the best of the eight city managers they had worked with over the years. He supervised but did not micromanage, and staff morale was high, they said. The problem was not Beckett, but a divisive controversy during an election year that upset the city's political balance, they said. Meyers said the political turmoil prompted her to retire early last month.

Within days of the new mayor's arrival in January 2004, Beckett notified the council that he would leave when his contract expired in May 2004. He eventually moved that date up to April. In retrospect, Beckett said he should have given notice when voters elected a new mayor and council.

"I feel like he stayed to protect the people that worked for him as long as he could," Gossett said, adding, "He was a calming effect, and if he hadn't been here, it could have been a lot worse for us employees."

Beckett said he disliked leaving before he could see projects through. He wasn't used to it, having served 16 years in his previous job as Fayette County administrator, three to four times as long as most county administrators last.

"He's not going to let anybody run over him, but he's still a consensus builder," said former Fayette County Commissioner George Patton, who worked with Beckett in the early 1990s. "Billy goes strictly by the book, and if you go by the book, you're not going to have any conflict with him at all, and that's the way it should be."

Before Beckett's departure in 2000, the commission changed, and the new commissioners had a tendency to meddle, Patton explained: "He'd tell a department head to do something, and a commissioner would come along and try to counteract it, and he didn't like that."

Beckett said he believed most commissioners meant well, but that not having a clear chain of command creates problems in any organization.

"What happens is that priorities set by the commission as a whole might get sidetracked," Beckett said. Talking directly to the commissioner usually remedied the problem, he said.

Ultimately, the Fayette County Commission fired Beckett, but at his request, Beckett said. Quitting would have cost him more than $150,000 in severance. In the end, he had to cajole commissioners who liked him to vote to fire him.

"No matter how things turned out, I have great memories of the people I worked with, for the most part," Beckett said. "There were one or two I could have done without, but for the most part, 99 percent of them I feel very blessed to have worked with."

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or 352 754-6127.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a series of stories about the four finalists for Hernando County administrator. The finalists will be interviewed Tuesday by the County Commission. The commission is expected to name a replacement for Gary Adams, who resigned to take a job in Illinois, on Wednesday.

[Last modified January 15, 2006, 01:47:20]


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