The Coastal Star

Highland Beach: Still no town manager as meeting turns angry

Candidate, headhunter withdraw from search; job interviews delayed

By Rich Pollack

It’s back to the drawing board for Highland Beach commissioners in their quest to find a new town manager following a raucous meeting that included the abrupt resignation of a consultant, a shouting match between a former vice mayor and the current commission and complaints about an ineffective search process.

With the clock ticking and interim Town Manager Bill Thrasher set to leave as early as Aug. 21, the head of the executive search firm hired in June to find candidates for the job abruptly withdrew during the July 30 meeting after facing criticism for not providing a more extensive list of qualified candidates.

The special meeting, scheduled so commissioners could interview three potential candidates for the town’s top administrative position, started with news that one of the candidates had withdrawn, apparently put off by what he perceived as a lack of civility.

That was followed by a fiery exchange between former Vice Mayor Bill Weitz and members of the commission, who complained that Weitz’s stinging criticism of the elected officials during public comments was out of place.

Weitz left the meeting while Police Chief Craig Hartmann walked alongside him.

“This is probably why one of the candidates didn’t show up,” Mayor Carl Feldman said. “Because he watched the tapes and saw this dissension.”

Weitz  accused commissioners of micromanaging and being power hungry.

“They just demonstrated why you’ll never be able to stay in the job,” he told Thomas Bradford and Barry Feldman, the two remaining candidates in the audience.

The meeting ended after less than an hour, with Colin Baenziger of the search firm Colin Baenziger and Associates resigning and commissioners agreeing to call off interviews of the two candidates. 

“I feel we wasted an entire month and didn’t get the candidates we were looking for,” said Commissioner Elyse Riesa. “Our whole goal is to get the best candidates every way we can, and we can’t do that with just two people.”

Feldman and Vice Mayor Alysen Africano Nila also were concerned with the search.

“I think this whole system is screwed up,” Feldman said. “It’s not being handled properly.”

Baenziger, recognizing waning support, decided it would be best for his firm to withdraw.

“When you lose the confidence of two commissioners it makes it difficult to go forward,” he said. “It’s better for them to pick a new firm and proceed.”

Baenziger, whose firm had a $26,500 agreement with Highland Beach, said he would work with the town on payment.

He said his firm has withdrawn from agreements only twice before during its 20 years in business and it has negotiated to get paid for the phases of the process it has completed. Baenziger said the firm completed three of five phases outlined in the agreement.

The withdrawal of the search firm and the decision not to meet with Bradford and Feldman, who came prepared for interviews, left commissioners scrambling.

The day after Baenziger’s withdrawal, commissioners agreed to each provide Thrasher with the names of two candidates, either from the list the search firm provided or elsewhere.

Thrasher will contact each to see if they’re interested in the position and the town’s Police Department will do a preliminary background check. Candidates will then be invited for an interview.

Both Bradford and Feldman said they are still interested in the job. The two were among five finalists the search firm recommended from an initial list of more than 70.

Bradford served as town manager in Palm Beach for three years and was the village manager of Tequesta.

Barry Feldman, no relation to the mayor, served as town manager of West Hartford, Conn., for more than 20 years before serving as chief operating officer at the University of Connecticut for seven years.

Two other finalists selected by the search firm were eliminated by a commission vote, while the third, Ryan Fabbri — the former town administrator in Pawleys Island, S.C. — withdrew the day before the scheduled interviews.

Baenziger said Fabbri was in town during the weekend before the meeting and met with the vice mayor during his visit.

That surprised other commissioners, who said they weren’t given the chance to meet with Fabbri over the weekend.

“I think all five of us should have been given the opportunity to meet candidates,” Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman said.

The town has been without a permanent manager since May 1, when commissioners unexpectedly and without explanation voted 3-2 to fire Valerie Oakes. Thrasher, a former Gulf Stream manager, was hired May 21 on an interim basis for 90 days. 

Baenziger said time constraints limited his ability to provide more candidates. He said his contract provided him with direction, but he began hearing conflicting requests from commissioners.

“We felt we didn’t know what to do,” he said. 

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