By Mary Hladky

After abruptly abandoning plans to hire an executive recruitment firm to help find City Manager Leif Ahnell’s successor, City Council members have chosen Ahnell’s top lieutenant to take the reins.

The council unexpectedly anointed Deputy City Manager George Brown on May 9, saying his invaluable experience and historical knowledge of the city would allow him to slide seamlessly into his new role.

11196825455?profile=RESIZE_400xBut before that, council member Fran Nachlas asked the crucial question: Did he want the job?

“Yes, it is something I would like to do,” Brown told her.

He will take over when Ahnell, who has served as city manager for 24 years, retires on March 31, 2024.

Council members have known for years that they would need to replace Ahnell, who has long been held in high regard for how he runs the city, and have fretted about how to handle the transition. Ahnell entered the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan in 2017 and is required to retire next year.

Brown joined the city’s building inspection division in 1977 and rose through the ranks to become assistant city manager. He left for a five-year stint in real estate management and for a brief period later to work with a nonprofit, but was recruited to return to the city both times. He was elevated to deputy city manager in 2004.

Brown has handled many of the city’s most complex matters, including the sale of the city’s western golf course in 2021 and the lease of city land in Mizner Park last year that cleared the way for construction of the proposed $115.4 million Center for Arts & Innovation.

Deputy Mayor Monica Mayotte first floated the idea of elevating Brown in February.

“I think George is our heir apparent,” she said at the time. But there was almost no discussion of the idea and only Nachlas voiced support.
Council member Marc Wigder, who was sworn into office on March 31, raised the matter anew the evening before the council was to hold its annual three-day strategic planning meeting when the topic of succession planning was likely to be discussed.

“We have a clear transition path,” he said. “With Mr. Ahnell’s retirement looming, Mr. Brown is clearly ready to be our city manager.”

Other council members quickly agreed. “The continuity will serve us well,” said Mayor Scott Singer.

Speaking after the meeting, Wigder said he thought it best to identify Ahnell’s replacement before strategic planning so that more time would be available to discuss other matters.

“The continuing of stable city management is perhaps the most critical thing we can do,” he said.

Wigder and some of the other council members thought that they might not have enough time to select another high-quality replacement before Ahnell must leave.

City officials had chosen a recruitment firm and were in the process of negotiating a contract with it. Once onboard, the firm would conduct a nationwide search and identify the best candidates, with the council making the final selection — a process that could be lengthy.

One question, though, is how long Brown will serve in the top spot. He also is at retirement age and had been expected to leave last year.

Wigder said that hasn’t been specified, but he anticipates Brown would serve as a transition city manager.

“There was a general understanding that everyone knew this would not be a 20-year appointment,” he said.

Mayotte was pleased that Wigder broached Brown’s appointment again.

Citing Brown’s “wealth of knowledge,” she said, “I thought he should be afforded the opportunity to be our city manager for as long as he wants to be with the city.”

She too foresees Brown as a transition manager who will run the city capably while giving the council more time to select a person to succeed him.

City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser proposed at the May 23 council meeting that the city’s human resources department gather information on what other similar-sized cities are paying their city managers whose qualifications match Brown’s. Frieser will negotiate an employment agreement with Brown, which would need council approval.

She indicated the talks with Brown would be straightforward and simple.

Wigder objected to human resources’ involvement, saying that since the department reports to Ahnell, a conflict of interest exists. Instead, he said that either Singer or an outside attorney should handle the negotiations.

His proposal, however, drew no support from other council members.

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