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Dunedin warms to its new city manager

Published August 14, 2007


No matter how thorough the interview process, hiring a new city manager can be risky business. There are things that officials and residents can't learn until they have worked with that person for a while.

After six months, these are some of the things Dunedin officials and residents have learned about their new city manager, Rob DiSpirito: He works hard, he believes in open government, and he keeps his word. And he expects the same of the people who work for him.

That's a formula for success in any community interested in good government.

Some wondered if DiSpirito would be tough enough to do what needed to be done in Dunedin. He is soft-spoken. He does more listening than talking. He does not have a forceful presence.

The challenges he faced were significant. Dunedin had operated under the same city manager for more than 20 years. The city staff had become accustomed to working the same way for too long. His bosses on the City Commission didn't get along with each other. And aside from those issues, the state was in the midst of a financial crisis, local tax revenues were being capped, and the morale of the city staff was in the cellar.

DiSpirito, it turned out, was tough enough.

He started his job on Jan. 22, and today his bosses on the City Commission talk about him like he's a hero.

At a meeting earlier this month, commissioners praised him for being a great communicator, a good listener, a hands-on manager, a boss who shares the limelight with his staff, and a city manager who seeks advice from the community.

DiSpirito doesn't just delegate; he gets in the trenches with his staff, though it means working long hours. He does research, asks questions, and seeks out others who have expertise on issues confronting the city. He has made long-needed changes in the city staff, recognized and rewarded employees who have special talents, and begun revamping departments and procedures.

While previous city administrations sometimes seemed unwelcoming to residents, DiSpirito invites public opinions. His approach to cutting the city budget is characteristic. He asked city employees to help with cost-cutting ideas, told city department heads to give employees time during the work day to brainstorm ideas, and put out a call to residents to send their cost-trimming ideas to his online hotline.

When he heard builders and developers were unhappy with city processes, DiSpirito scheduled a public meeting and invited them to bring him their complaints. As usual, DiSpirito listened closely to the 40 or so people who came to the meeting and told stories about difficulties getting permits and plan reviews. He checked out how other area cities handled those services and got ideas for ways to improve.

DiSpirito noticed even before he arrived in Dunedin that the city Web site didn't offer much useful information. Today, is much improved, offering more information, streaming video of commission meetings, the manager's hotline and updates on all city projects.

In only six months, DiSpirito has figured out some weaknesses in city government and how to address them, and has brought a more open and welcoming tone to City Hall. That's impressive indeed.

[Last modified August 13, 2007, 20:09:48]

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