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For Sallee, 'zone' could not be found

David Sallee is history. Now the city is looking for yet another city manager, and some stability in a sea of shifting politics.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 7, 2001


CRYSTAL RIVER -- In his book A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee profiled a 6-foot-5 basketball player at Princeton named Bill Bradley, an athlete with an uncanny ability to make the game seem effortless.

"He was remarkably fast, but he ran easily. His passes were so good that they were difficult to follow," McPhee wrote of the future New York Knick and U.S. senator.

David Sallee, Crystal River's lanky former city manager, who has played a few backyard basketball games himself, has been in this elusive zone before, a place where timing and motion are fluid, flawless. "It's an amazing phenomenon," he said.

"You make shots you never could have made, you make passes from peripheral vision, you can just feel each other's presence."

When he took the Crystal River job two years ago, Sallee hoped he could create the same "flow" in a small organization. The experiment, as recounted by the former college psychology professor, was a failure. "We didn't get close."

Sallee will not get a second chance, not in Crystal River. His contract was not renewed by the City Council and Wednesday was his last day.

Sallee, who has not found a new job, plans to visit his ailing father in Missouri and then return to his home in Cape Coral to continue his job search.

In an interview earlier this week with the Citrus Times, Sallee, 60, spoke of his accomplishments and disappointments and, ever carefully, shared his view of the City Council.

"You don't see forward movement. You don't see analytical or insightful review of information," he said of recent council meetings, which have turned into freewheeling debates.

Above all, Sallee sees himself as a victim of circumstance, an accidental player in a turf war between bitterly divided factions.

Two months into the job, Sallee said, it was apparent he would not last more than two years. That's because he was brought in by three council members -- Paula Wheeler, Alex Ilnyckyj and Richard Brady -- who fired the previous city manager, Russ Kreager.

Sallee said he had an open door policy and took pains to remain apolitical. But when those on the council who hired him were swept out of office during elections, he knew he was next to go.

"People just carry over an assumption that you are only listening to one group," he said. "That must be what's going on because if you follow the pattern, you see a manager come in and when the council composition changes, that person goes out."

Despite that looming reality, and some early missteps he attributed to turnover in departments -- in 1999, shortly after finance director George Zoetlein left, he presented a budget that had $210,000 more in proposed revenues than existed -- Sallee assembled a squad of professionals he believed could break the vicious cycle.

Looking back, Sallee boasts of "the best management team the city has ever had." It was made up of Walt Brown, building inspector; Buddy Holshouser, public works director; Jim Farley, police chief; and Donna Kilbury, finance director.

"It was a good team but it was not good enough because we had an awful lot to do and we couldn't get it all done," Sallee said last week, a tired look on his face.

The group showed promise but fell apart before it could hit its stride, he said, a casualty of small town politics and a heavy workload.

Brown was the first to leave, rebuking the council in December for not providing "plausible" reasons for dismissing Sallee.

"This is the beginning of the hemorrhaging," incoming Mayor Ron Kitchen said at the time, pleading that the council retain Sallee, the city's seventh executive since 1990.

Two months later, Holshouser quit. "There's an environment here that I'm just not comfortable with," he said. "Nobody seems to have the good of the community at heart."

Holshouser's position remains unfilled. A second search is under way after initial candidates dropped out or refused the offer.

Without a city manager or public works director, several major infrastructure projects, including a $4.3-million grant Sallee helped secure, may lose momentum.

"What we do here is we start, stop, start, stop. We waste a lot of energy getting these things rolling again," Sallee said."

Politics over progress

In his most candid remarks to date, Sallee criticized City Council members for becoming mired in politics, losing sight of the city's best interests, and meddling in the day-to-day affairs of the city -- all of which disrupted the flow he was seeking.

The recent decision to privatize trash collection was a tough one for the council. After dozens of people said they wanted to retain the service, the council voted to contract out only commercial service. But after a few business owners complained, the council reversed itself, against the advice of Sallee and Holshouser.

After it became clear keeping the commercial accounts would cause a steep deficit, the council reverted to the original plan.

"How does that look to individuals in the community? I mean, they cannot be impressed with how we were functioning," Sallee said.

He cited two examples of tampering by council members. The first involved a public works employee facing disciplinary action. The employee sought relief from a City Council member, whom Sallee did not name, and that official catered to the request.

If employees feel they can circumvent supervisors, their performance may suffer, Sallee said, compromising the entire organization.

More recently, council chairman Mike Gudis met with assistant public works director John Lettow and offered him Holshouser's job. "The council likes to get involved in things where they really shouldn't be," said Sallee, whose stated duties include hiring department heads.

Gudis said he approached Lettow to discuss a fireworks display and mentioned the job in passing, saying he has known Lettow for years. "Just because people are elected officials doesn't mean they give up their freedom of speech," Gudis said.

The council has been criticized for not providing detailed examples of Sallee's faults, though his propensity to delegate and his decision not to purchase property in town have been cited.

Gudis, in an interview, said he was not comfortable with Sallee's ability.

"There are some things you can't talk about publicly," he said when asked to elaborate. "There have been some things that have come up -- and I'm not going to pinpoint them -- but I don't have a confidence."

Asked if he would have done anything differently, Sallee said he would not. He chose to rent a condominium because buying a home would not have been prudent given the turnover.

He said he would not have sought friendships with powerful people, such as former council member Ed Tolle, simply to shore up his future.

If he knew what he knows now, Sallee would not have applied for the job. "But then again," he said, "I probably wouldn't have had some of the experiences. I wouldn't be able to work with some of the people I did."

Among his accomplishments, Sallee points to the $4.3-million grant he helped obtain to replace failing septic systems with central sewer service and updating or installing various policies, including one to update purchasing practices.

His supporters say he brought a level of professionalism and class missing from Crystal River.

David Sallee's legacy is sure to be mixed, a reflection of the polarized, often bellicose City Council and a handful of residents consumed by politics.

If he were to write history, Sallee might point to his dedication, his ability to remain focused even as chaos infected his staff. But he might also acknowledge that, unlike Bill Bradley, he could not find the zone when it mattered most.

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