Commissioners hold off on hiring new administrator

At a Tuesday meeting, commissioners expressed serious reservations about their top candidate, Charles C. Saddler III of Lakeland.

Published July 12, 2006

LECANTO -- The hiring of a new county administrator lurched to a surprise halt late Tuesday after county commissioners said they had major concerns with the man they tapped for the job.

At a meeting three weeks ago, four of five commissioners said Charles C. Saddler III of Lakeland was their top pick. But Tuesday night, all of the commissioners said they weren’t sure and needed to meet with Saddler again before they sealed the deal. The about-face comes two weeks after several commissioners said consultant Tom Freijo shortchanged the Citrus search by failing to provide enough background information about the candidates.

But at least one commissioner’s most pointed criticism Tuesday night was reserved for Saddler himself. Commissioner Jim Fowler, who ranked Saddler as his second choice for the county’s top administrative job, said he couldn’t overlook Saddler’s “lack of experience and accomplishments in his professional career.”

He noted that Saddler did not attend Tuesday night’s meeting, even though his $120,000 contract was on the agenda.

“Are we sure this is the right guy?” Fowler asked. “Is his lack of attendance an indication of his interest in the job?”

Commissioner Dennis Damato did not discuss his opinion of the search when the issue came up at a commission meeting last month. But he said Tuesday that he was “disheartened” by the dearth of strong candidates with Florida experience.

“Mr. Saddler may be the best of a poor cast of candidates... I really don’t know that he has the dynamics of personality that we need as a county administrator,” he said.

Even more troubling, Fowler said, was a conversation he had with Saddler the morning of the pick.

According to Fowler, during a private interview they discussed rumors that commissioners wanted to offer the job to Assistant County Administrator Tom Dick. The rumors had surfaced in media reports, but Saddler said he also heard them from two senior staff members at the public meet-and-greet reception on June 19.

“He said if he got the job he was going to deal with those two staff members,” Fowler said.

Exactly what Saddler meant was not clear, Fowler said.

But the alarm expressed by Fowler’s fellow commissioners Tuesday night after learning of the conversation was. “If what you say is true...then we have a serious problem,” commission Chairman Gary Bartell said.

Commissioner Vicki Phillips said she had also discussed the rumors with Saddler, but she heard nothing “even remotely close to what Commissioner Fowler described.”

Commissioner Joyce Valentino said she has felt for weeks that the search process went too quickly. Fowler’s comments, she said, made her even more concerned about the results.

“I wish this all came up sooner,” Valentino said. “I felt things were going too quickly. We should have brought up these issues before this evening.”

Ultimately commissioners decided to table consideration of Saddler’s contract. They asked County Attorney Robert “Butch” Battista to tell Saddler about their concerns and set up individual meetings between Saddler and each commissioner.

Battista said he last spoke with Saddler on Friday. The 49-year-old Lakeland resident, who is currently serving as interim town manager in Dundee, said he couldn’t make Tuesday’s Citrus commission meeting.

Dundee also had a town council meeting Tuesday in which officials were slated to select Saddler’s replacement.
Whether Saddler would still have a new job in Citrus was unclear after Tuesday’s commission meeting.

Fowler said repeatedly that Dick was the best candidate for Citrus County administrator, even though he never applied for the job.
Dick said he was flattered by praise from Fowler and other commissioners, but he said his decision not to apply was deliberate.

“I’ve never lobbied for this position,” he said.

But if commissioners decide not to hire Saddler, he said they should re-advertise the position. In that case, he said he would “re-evaluate” and consider applying.

Damato said time was of the essence.

“I think Mr. Saddler needs to step up and step up real soon,” Damato said. “How do you know that he’s not shopping this contract for another job in the interim?”

As commissioners expressed their doubt and dismay, former County Administrator Richard Wesch looked on from the other side of the dais.
He sat among a group of county employees in one of the last rows of seats, waiting to discuss a new legal agreement between the county and the Sheriff’s Office. It was his first appearance before the County Commission in his new role as general counsel for the sheriff.

And it was his first official meeting with commissioners since they voted 3-2 to fire him in March. Bartell, Phillips and Valentino voted for Wesch’s ouster. Damato and Fowler voted against it.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 860-7309.