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Doubts delay hiring decision

All five commissioners now have cold feet about the man they had planned to hire as county administrator.

Published July 13, 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 five 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 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?"

Saddler, who is currently serving as interim town manager in Dundee, said he couldn't attend Tuesday's Citrus commission meeting.

Dundee, in Polk County, also had a town council meeting that day. Officials there were slated to select Saddler's replacement.

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, and Saddler said he also heard them from two senior staff members at the public meet-and-greet reception 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.

Contacted by a reporter Wednesday, Saddler said Fowler's description was "kind of how it happened."

Saddler said that at the June 19 reception, a senior county staff member told him that "the fix was in for Tom Dick to get the job." The staff member, according to Saddler, suggested that he express interest in the assistant county administrator position.

The next morning, Saddler learned that another senior staff member had made similar comments to another county administrator candidate.

But Saddler said commissioners had misinterpreted his comments to Fowler.

"That doesn't by any stretch of the imagination mean that I'm going to be firing anybody," he said.

But he said he thought the staffers' actions had undermined the commission's authority -- an issue that he would have to deal with as county administrator.

Commissioner Vicki Phillips said Tuesday 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.

Saddler said he was shocked to receive Battista's call Wednesday morning.

He said Fowler gave no indication of his concern when they met.

"This issue has been sitting there for three weeks. ... It could have been brought up any number of other times," Saddler said. "It very much concerns me because I thought that any issues like this had been resolved."

He said he will meet with commissioners as soon as possible.

Their doubt, he said, places him in an awkward position and has a "chilling effect" on his family's relocation efforts.

"Hopefully this can be overcome," he said.

Whether Saddler would still have a 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, Dick said, they should readvertise 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 during the meeting Tuesday, 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 or 860-7309.

[Last modified July 12, 2006, 23:34:40]

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