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1 year later, new managers make strides

PAUL McINTOSH: The county administrator dives right in and has earned praise for insight and leadership. Areas for improvement: communication.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- Before a word was spoken, Paul McIntosh handed county commissioners 11 pages of drawings and ideas to help Hernando County government expand as demands for service increase.

As it dawned on them that they never had seen the details McIntosh wanted to discuss, the commissioners balked. Even as he protested that his presentation would clarify everything, his bosses abruptly canceled the meeting until they could review the documents.

It's not that they opposed talking about the concept. The commission had, after all, spent $179,000 for the study on county buildings and property.

Rather, commissioners just didn't like getting information at the last minute. So they sent McIntosh a message.

"There's two ways to test the water," McIntosh explained days later. "You can stick your toe in the water and see what it's like, or you can just jump in. We chose the latter."

During his first year as county administrator, which ended Feb. 28, McIntosh frequently has dived right into issues, such as reforming economic development efforts and reorganizing his staff.

For the most part, he has earned high praise for his insightful solutions and modern leadership methods. Most commissioners and county employees say McIntosh is just what the county needed.

"As he comes forward with initiatives as we're looking to facilitate growth, he's right in line with what I'm looking at," commission Chairman Chris Kingsley said.

Budget, finance offices have their eye on him

Inside the chorus of praise, however, rise strains of criticism.

Some commissioners have complained that McIntosh, 49, does not keep them informed. Commissioner Diane Rowden recently told him not to comment to reporters until he can let the commission know what he's doing.

It's perhaps his biggest flaw, one that nearly got him fired as Mohave County, Ariz., administrator.

"I think he's doing a good job. I really wish he would communicate more with us on issues," Commissioner Betty Whitehouse said.

If McIntosh has another potential problem, it's a perception among a small but vocal group of residents that he seems intent on spending the county into a black hole. Officials in the budget and finance offices are watching, too, aware that he often extols the virtues of borrowing.

The loans he has recommended so far are fine, Finance Director Amy Gillis said. But several big-ticket items are in the offing, so it can't hurt to pay attention, she said.

"Our financial adviser will work in conjunction with us to assist the administration to ensure that we're not leveraged beyond what we can afford," Gillis said.

McIntosh shrugs off most criticism and says he simply recommends what he considers to be in the county's best interest. No one needs to agree.

"I would be frustrated if I didn't believe wholly and fully that those five (commissioners) are elected to make decisions," he said. "I work for them."

'He has an open mind; he listens'

In the summer of 1999, many Hernando County residents worried that no one would want to work for them.

Bonnie Dyga had just quit the administrator's job after 18 tumultuous months during which Commissioners Pat Novy and Bobbi Mills criticized her style and questioned her abilities.

Dyga accused the two of delving too deeply into daily activities instead of focusing on policy. She never even bought a home in the county, she felt so uncertain about her position.

Once Dyga left, community leaders wondered aloud who would want to become the county's third administrator in three years. Who would want to tackle the fickle, rudderless commission as it struggled to forge a path that would allow Hernando County to grow without making it look like the much maligned counties to the south?

McIntosh, who was seeking to head back east after years out west, saw opportunity in the county's situation.

"Hernando County is fast growing from a rural to a suburban community," he said. "I recognized the ingredients were here."

He clicked with the commissioners during interviews. He agreed with their desire to create a more professional, effective and efficient operation. He liked the area and said it seemed a good place to call home, with the qualities of a small town and the conveniences of a metropolitan area.

So McIntosh, his wife and two children plunged in. He took the job, which pays him $96,574 plus benefits annually, bought a home and got to work.

Right away he pushed the Department of Public Works for better management of the county's residential road paving program, which had millions of dollars coming in but no long-term methods to determine objectively which roads needed paving. The program now has a new manager and is getting automated.

He won commission approval to create a master plan for the government's buildings and property. He helped steer a stalled fire-rescue consolidation plan to fruition.

McIntosh also found money to build a long-delayed new animal control shelter. When the future of economic development came under fire, he contacted the University of Florida to help chart a course of action.

To ensure that tax dollars are used properly, McIntosh began setting performance measurements for each county department. And he has pushed for increased use of technology to make government more efficient.

Perhaps most important to his employees, McIntosh flattened Dyga's corporate structure. He gave his underlings the room to do their jobs with high expectations but without interference.

"With Bonnie, most of the department directors felt it was, go in and it didn't matter what you thought. She already had her mind made up, whereas he has an open mind. He listens," Human Resources Director Barbara Dupre said. "He gives you an opportunity to plead your case, and he doesn't get angry just because you differ."

"He doesn't micromanage me," Budget Officer George Zoettlein said. "He lets me do what I need to do. He's nice enough to work with."

Deputy Administrator Dick Radacky, who served as interim administrator between Dyga and McIntosh, said McIntosh's style has generated an enthusiasm that he had not seen here in 16 years.

"Paul McIntosh exudes a can-do attitude and expects his departments to do the same," Radacky said. "He's firm and he's fair and he's an outstanding leader."

With growth comes growing pains

Not everyone is a convert, though. A small group of employees remain true to Chuck Hetrick, fired about three years ago after more than a decade on the job. Some see a division between McIntosh's directors with whom he lunches daily and the others.

"I have talked to Paul about that," Kingsley said. "Perception-wise, I don't think it's the best thing to be doing. But in reality, I think it's just going to lunch."

McIntosh also has sparred publicly with Rowden and, before her, with Novy and Mills. He said he recognizes he must get along with all commissioners, but also noted that he would not buckle to certain politically motivated demands.

"I have to give them what I feel is my best professional advice," McIntosh said. "It doesn't really matter on the issue. If I started changing my recommendation or started tilting one way or the other because of political pressure, then my advice is no good."

Communication will improve, as will the government's performance, McIntosh said. With things moving smoothly internally, he said, the county can move forward with its plans to grow responsibly, so it remains a livable place even as it becomes more suburban.

He sees the county rapidly losing its rural look as it grows, and the growing pains are evident. The transition is evident in the commission, which has different types of political pressures placed upon it than it would have a decade ago.

To cope with the changes, McIntosh said, the county must try to attract a good mix of new businesses and residential development. It also must provide smart government that can prepare for issues before they become problems, he said. That means a lot of advance planning.

"The first thing I needed to do was develop an attitude and management style for the organization," McIntosh said. "Once people are feeling more comfortable in that, then you can start addressing problems in a more expeditious manner. We're getting there."

And McIntosh said he'll steer as long as the commission will keep him.

"I'm about 15 years from retirement," he said. "This county suits my lifestyle and my personality to a T."

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