The Coastal Star

Highland Beach: Commission opts for quick search for new town manager

By Rich Pollack

The clock is ticking on the search for a new town manager.

Highland Beach has been without a permanent town manager since early May, when the Town Commission fired Valerie Oakes in a 3-2 vote and asked her to leave immediately.

Commissioners hired interim Town Manager William Thrasher in mid-May to fill in, and now it appears he will leave before Labor Day.

That gives Colin Baenziger of the search firm Colin Baenziger & Associates just about two months to find a candidate.

“Can we do a search in a month and have someone on board by Sept. 1?” Baenziger said during a commission workshop meeting last month. “It’s possible.”

Typically a search takes about 41/2 months from start to finish, said Baenziger, whose Daytona Beach firm will be paid $26,500.

He said his firm has more than 13,700 names in its database and about 20 candidates who could take on the job quickly. 

Since he was hired to be interim town manager on May 21, Thrasher has told commissioners he would stay for either 90 days or one year, but nothing in between.

Commissioners, who praise Thrasher’s work, previously agreed to stick with the 90-day term when Thrasher took the job. He was Gulf Stream manager before retiring in 2017.

At the June workshop meeting, however, Mayor Carl Feldman again recommended keepimg Thrasher for a year.

“This would accomplish a smoother transition,” he said. “I don’t want to feel like we’re rushed into a new town manager.”

Feldman outlined 11 major projects on Thrasher’s plate and said it would be in the town’s best interest to allow him to continue on those projects. Among those issues are helping the town as it transitions from an outsourced building department to an in-house department and overseeing the budget process.

Others on the commission said they want a new town manager as soon as possible.

“This town has to move on to a permanent town manager,” Vice Mayor Alysen Africano Nila said.

Commissioners Rhoda Zelniker and Elyse Riesa concurred.

“I don’t want to stop looking for a town manager,” Zelniker said. “We have to get this town on the right track and the right track is a new town manager.”

Throughout the discussion, commissioners praised Thrasher for his ability to help resolve some long-standing issues and for his professionalism.

“We found someone who understands our issues,” Riesa said. “We have now seen what a great town manager can do.”

Zelniker said she hoped the town could find a manager with Thrasher’s experience.

“What we need is a Bill Thrasher who’s not going to retire,” she said.

Another benefit of having Thrasher come aboard has been the reduction of a spike in legal bills from April and May, commissioners said.

They added that one reason the bills grew so large is the town was without a manager between the first part of May, when Oakes was fired, and May 21, when Thrasher was hired.

Legal services for April reached $16,376, a little over $10,000 more than the $6,211 legal bill for March. The bill from the outside law firm of Torcivia, Donlon, Goddeau & Ansay, P.A. for services in May was $24,297.

The total of $40,673 for the two months is a little less than half of the $90,000 budget for general legal services for the entire fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

“The billing is too high,” Feldman said during a Town Commission workshop meeting late last month. “If we go forward, we could hire our own attorney.”

The mayor said part of the problem was a change in policy that gave commissioners free rein to contact Town Attorney Pam Ryan regarding legal issues.

Feldman said in May there were more than 40 phone conversations between commissioners and the town attorney’s office, which bills at a rate of about $220 an hour.

Ryan said since Thrasher’s hiring, she has had fewer calls from commissioners.

“You will see a difference,” she said.

Thrasher said he appreciated the opportunity to serve as interim manager but was a bit embarrassed by the praise.

“What I’m doing is my job and nothing more,” he said. “Your next town manager will do the same.” 

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