City officials are hoping that a contract can be worked out with Bonaparte in short order, bringing to conclusion a search that has taken much time and energy. For months, commissioners have pored over a stack of resumes and conducted their own research to find the right candidate who will be in charge of the day-to-day running of city government and lay out a strategic plan that will guide development and growth in Sanford for the next 10 or 15 years.
The city launched the search for its next top administrative officer in the spring, initiating an exhaustive, nationwide hunt that drew more than 200 applicants. This came on the heels of a November referendum in which voters decided that the city manager must live within city limits, effectively ousting interim City Manager Tom George who resides in Geneva.
Sanford hasn’t had a permanent city manager since Sherman Yehl, who was relieved of his post in September 2009. At the time Yehl was hired, he also was not the first choice to become city manager.
Which brings us back to the present.
On July 21, commissioners elected to offer the city manager position to David Jones, a county administrator in Illinois. Mayor Jeff Triplett pushed hard to get Jones, who at the time was in the running for another job. Ultimately, Jones decided to accept a similar county position in Iowa that offered at least a third more money than the $130,000-$150,000 a year salary range Sanford is willing to pay.
With Bonaparte the consensus second choice of commissioners, Triplett will now begin negotiations to secure the next city manager. Without a clear-cut third alternative in the mix, commissioners are hopeful their search is at an end.
“I think he really likes Sanford,” City Commissioner Patty Mahany said of Bonaparte. “He wants to live here and make it is home.”
However, along with considerable government experience, Bonaparte also brings with him some baggage. In his last position, Bonaparte was the central figure during a tumultuous time in Topeka city government, which eventually led to his being forced out of office and leaving under a cloud of controversy.
Mahany acknowledged the “divisiveness” that marked his tenure in Topeka, but said it wasn’t all Bonaparte’s making. Six years ago, the Topeka city government went from a strong mayor to a city manager form of government. As the first city manager under the new system, Bonaparte had to lead the way during a tough transition.
“What I got out of it was that the mayor and some council members didn’t want to give up that control,” said Mayor Triplett, who tracked the discord through past news accounts.
The mayor also checked up on the candidate’s references, which further assuaged his concerns.
Commissioner Velma Williams also called a variety of officials in Topeka—the mayor, police chief, city attorney and chamber president—to get a more thorough understanding of the situation.
Williams said Bonaparte was praised by everyone as a “consummate professional” with strong budget-management skills. Williams added that Bonaparte enjoyed the support of the city labor unions, despite a cost-cutting reorganization that eliminated 128 public-employee positions.
Those who worked with Bonaparte, while conceding the infighting that took place in city government, said he continued to work hard under difficult circumstances.
“They were all surprised that he lasted five or six years because of the [political] climate,” said Williams, noting that one current council member even confided to her “The council failed him.”
Williams said she now supports Bonaparte, despite earlier reservations about the way he left his previous post.
Commissioner Randy Jones also expressed concern about Bonaparte during the search process. He questioned Bonaparte’s response on a questionnaire that said he wanted to come to Florida to retire because his wife has family here. Bonaparte is about five years from retirement age, but has said he intends on working until he is 70.
Bonaparte served for five years as the city manager in Topeka, which has a population of 127,000 and an annual city budget of $225 million with 1,200 employees. Before that he worked in New Jersey, where he spent a decade as the chief administrative officer in Camden, Plainfield and Willingboro Township. Prior to that he was a city manager in Maryland.
If contract negotiations between Mayor Triplett and Bonaparte are successful, the proposal could be brought back to the city commission for final approval at its next meeting on Aug. 8.