Top task: Unite fractured board

Published May 14, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - The good news is that city manager candidate Jennene Norman-Vacha already knows the personalities inside City Hall.

The bad news is that she realizes she may have her work cut out for her if she lands the job.

The Brooksville City Council is divided, with the thorny personnel issues of recent months deepening some of those chasms.

Even the selection of a new city manager has polarized council members.

The first vote from a field of three finalists netted a tie between former Seminole general services director Mitchell Bobowski and Norman-Vacha, owner of a local human resources consulting firm. She previously worked for Hernando County government, including five years as deputy county administrator.

A tiebreaker vote put Bobowski on top. But Bobowski dropped out of contention last week after several council members questioned his work history and application.

Before he walked out of the council meeting, he said he needed the council's full support to be successful and he knew he didn't have it.

Then in another split vote, the council agreed to try to negotiate a contract with Norman-Vacha.

She said she was surprised that Bobowski had dropped out, but also welcomed a second shot at the job she dreamed of having.

"I'm a little bit more reserved not being the first pick, " Norman-Vacha said.

As of Friday, she said, contract negotiations had not begun. The city was busy double- and triple-checking her background to be sure that the council isn't embarrassed again.

She said she wasn't worried about that.

She also said that while she, like Bobowski, would like unanimous council support, she could still become manager if there is a divide.

That would simply mean she would have to make it a priority to find common ground among council members so that everyone could move forward to benefit the city.

"You don't always expect to get a 5-0" vote, she said. "That's not always going to work. That's not always going to happen."

Council member Richard Lewis cast the only no vote against beginning negotiations with Norman-Vacha. He said that he didn't think the discrepancies in Bobowski's history warranted dropping the council's first pick.

He said he would be willing to work with Norman-Vacha if she becomes the city manager, but also said he believed several council members were working behind the scenes to scuttle Bobowski's chance at the job.

"I didn't know that, " Norman-Vacha said. "I wish somebody had told me that, though I'm not so sure how you orchestrate someone's background."

Lewis also said that some longtime city employees are beginning to look for work elsewhere because they are concerned about the direction the city is going.

Anna Liisa Covell takes that a step further. In her blog, "Hernando County: A positive approach, " she writes that Norman-Vacha would clean house at City Hall.

Covell said she has heard that City Clerk Karen Phillips and community development director Bill Geiger could be gone under Norman-Vacha.

That came as a surprise to Norman-Vacha. She said she has worked with both city employees on past projects. She said she knows they work hard and she values the historical knowledge they have of the city.

"We've already lost a lot of that intellectual knowledge, " making experienced workers more important than ever, she said.

Norman-Vacha also has strong supporters in the community. Brooksville real estate broker Gary Schraut tried to convince Lewis that she would be the perfect pick because she already knew so much about the city.

He said he didn't understand why some people think the only qualified candidates live outside Hernando County.

"We've got wonderful people, hardworking people, right here in this county, and Jennene is one of them, " Schraut said.

Norman-Vacha said she was disappointed by the negative comments people have made about her, but she understands that change brings uncertainty.

If successful, Norman-Vacha said, getting to know the city staff will be a top priority, along with her strong effort to bring together the council members.

When she sat with them in individual interviews several weeks ago, it struck her that they all want the same things for Brooksville.

"All five of them have a strong love and commitment to the city, " she said. "That will tend to bring people together."

The council could approve a contract with Norman-Vacha as early as May 21.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 352 754-6117.