By Rich Pollack
Retirement has been a lot harder than Bill Thrasher thought.
The town manager in Gulf Stream for 16 years retired in April 2017 after 21 years of working for the town. But last month he rejoined the workforce to serve as Highland Beach’s interim town manager.
“Retirement is hard work,” Thrasher said. “It’s difficult, but I am getting better at it.”
It may be several months before Thrasher, 70, gets to hone his retirement skills again.
In the meantime, he’s running the day-to-day operations in Highland Beach, filling the spot left open early last month when town commissioners voted 3-2 to fire Valerie Oakes.
Thrasher, who started immediately after being selected on May 21, will be paid the equivalent rate of the $139,000 annual salary Oakes was receiving, based on the amount of time he is on the job.
In being selected on a fourth ballot, Thrasher beat five other candidates, including some who are well known in the area.
Among the candidates were former Delray Beach City Manager David Harden and former South Palm Beach Town Manager Bob Vitas.
Barry Feldman, who spent 21 years as the West Hartford city manager in Connecticut, finished second. Other candidates were Taylor Brown, the former city manager of Mary Esther, Fla., and, Joanna Cunningham, town clerk, public information officer and passport service manager in Greenacres.
Thrasher, who read about the job opening in The Coastal Star, said he is looking forward to leading Highland Beach through a transitional period.
“I figured I could help the town,” he said. “I got into local government for the purpose of serving people.”
For several commissioners, Thrasher’s knowledge of Florida and his connections to many working in government and the private sector were a selling point, as was his experience in a town with similarities to Highland Beach.
“I think he’ll serve us very well,” said Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman. “I think he can let the whole town breathe a collective sigh of relief.”
She said Thrasher’s management style, which emphasizes collaboration, will benefit the town.
“The best organizations are led with teamwork,” Gossett-Seidman said.
Those who worked with Thrasher say he makes decisions and suggestions with the best interests of his town in mind.
“He’s very conscientious about how any of his recommendations are going to affect not just the commission but also the people in town,” says Rita Taylor, the longtime Gulf Stream town clerk. “He will be a good manager anywhere he goes.”
Thrasher’s knowledge of coastal and beach issues and his work with Florida Power & Light officials and Florida Department of Transportation leaders also were a plus for some commissioners, because the town will address issues involving those organizations. Some commissioners also cited his experience in the business world as a benefit.
Thrasher and Highland Beach Town Clerk Lanelda Gaskins may also need to call upon any relationships they have with the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Office, should a fledgling recall movement gain traction.
Leaders of that movement, taking aim at eligible commissioners who voted to fire Oakes, said they held an organizational meeting with more than a dozen residents attending.
Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher says recall elections are rare, and progress is often derailed by the stringent requirements set down in Florida law.
During a Town Commission workshop meeting late last month, some residents referenced the recall effort while questioning the decision to fire Oakes.
Others, however, said they supported the decision and think the town needed a change in leadership.
“We elected a new commission to give us the change we needed to bring us into the future,” said resident Jane Perlow, who later praised Thrasher. “We now have an experienced professional strong town manager to carry out the commission’s policies going forward.”
Commissioner Elyse Riesa, who voted to hire Thrasher on the final ballot, said she was pleased with the quality of all the candidates, but what set Thrasher apart was his experience helping Gulf Stream find a new town manager after he announced his retirement.
Thrasher set up a process that helped narrow the candidates to a list of finalists brought to the Town Commission.
Thrasher said he is not interested in taking the Highland Beach position permanently but that he would help the town find a permanent manager if commissioners ask.
That Thrasher came out of retirement to help Highland Beach as interim manager came as no surprise to Taylor, Gulf Stream’s town clerk for 28 years.
“I figured he wouldn’t stay idle for too long,” she said. “He’s the kind of person who needs to be involved and to have something to put his mind to.”