Bill Horne

Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne

CLEARWATER — The City Council on May 24 took a significant step toward finding a successor for City Manager Bill Horne, who is preparing to retire after 20 years, by narrowing its list of candidates to five finalists.

Last week the search firm Baker Tilly delivered a list of 10 semifinalists from the 91 applications. After one withdrew, the council picked its top five from the nine candidates.

The five finalists are: Michael Cernech, city manager of Tamarac; Carl Geffken, city manager of Fort Smith, Arkansas; Jill Goldsmith, town manager of Chatham, Massachusetts; Gary Palmer, whose resignation as city administrator of Roswell, Georgia, was effective June 1; and Kevin Woods, city manager of Thornton, Colorado.

The city will host the finalists for tours, interviews and a community forum the week of June 14, according to human resources director Jennifer Poirrier.

The council had most discussion and praise for Cernech, who has worked in Tamarac administration for 20 years, the last 10 as city manager. His application notes the city of 70,000 in Broward County has maintained exceptional services under his management, from various governmental awards, high customer satisfaction and an AA+ bond rating.

He has also navigated controversy among Tamarac’s elected officials. Last month, the Sun-Sentinel reported Tamarac city commissioners proposed a series of financial perks for themselves, including increased coverage of travel expenses and other stipends.

One commissioner directed Cernech to pick apart the newspaper’s coverage, but he refused, saying the stories were accurate, the Sentinel reported.

“I appreciated that; respecting the role of journalism and not going the fake-news route was very important to me,” council member Mark Bunker said.

Council members noted Cernech has been calling community leaders to gain insight about Clearwater. Mayor Frank Hibbard said he spotted Cernech at the downtown Sip and Stroll on Cleveland Street last weekend but that their introduction lasted less than 60 seconds and they did not discuss the job.

“I have to admit I was impressed he was in town to at least see Clearwater,” Hibbard said.

Carl Geffken, city manager of Fort Smith, Ark., was also one of the council’s top three picks. In his application, Geffken notes he has managed local governments and organizations of all sizes throughout his career.

During his five years leading Fort Smith, Geffken said the annual balance of the city’s general fund increased from 9 percent of expenses to 56 percent due to the budgetary controls he implemented.

Geffken noted his accomplishments in taking over the handling of two federal wastewater consent decrees, one in Fort Smith and another in Reading, Penn., where he served as city manager from 2009 to 2012.

He also worked as chief operating officer for Berks County, Penn., from 2012 to 2016 and in nonprofits before that.

City Council member Kathleen Beckman initially proposed eliminating Chatham, Mass., town manager Jill Goldsmith as a finalist because she lacks experience in large cities. Chatham, which Goldsmith has led since 2011, has a year-round population of 6,200 and a seasonal population of 35,000 compared to Clearwater’s 115,000 residents.

But all council members agreed to include her after Art Davis, director of the city’s search firm, praised Goldsmith’s “very impressive” management abilities. Davis said although the demographics are different, many of the complexities she’s dealt with in her shoreline community could translate to Clearwater.

In her application, Goldsmith said climate change and coastal resiliency have been her priority for 10 years “with an apparent ever-shifting Chatham shoreline exemplified by new inlet formations.” This has included participation in a vulnerability preparedness program, developing a hazard mitigation plan and partnering with academic institutions to study the impacts of climate change.

Last month, Gary Palmer submitted his resignation as city administrator of Roswell, Ga., effective June 1, after almost four years leading the city. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Palmer did not provide a reason, but the newspaper detailed a spat he had with a council member in 2019 and controversy around a road project that went millions of dollars over budget this year.

He served as assistant town manager of Farragut, Tenn., from 2006 to 2017 and community development director of Garden City, Mich., from 2001 to 2006. Palmer also served in the U.S. Marines for 10 years and spent two years as a police officer in Virginia.

City Council member Hoyt Hamilton advocated to add Palmer as the fifth finalist and praised Palmer’s philosophy. Hamilton read aloud a comment from Palmer’s application, which states in part: “Great leaders are going to create controversy. Hopefully conflict/controversy can be managed amicably and not in public.”

Along with Cernech, Kevin Woods, city manager of Thornton, Colo., was the only other candidate to make the top three of all five council members. But officials had little discussion about Woods on Monday.

While managing Thornton since 2017, a city of 145,000, Woods has led a $500 million, 75-mile water project and created a community outreach department to better understand undeserved residents, according to his application. He served as town manager of Stallings, N.C., from 2014 to 2017 and spent 26 years in the U.S. Army, with his last assignment as deputy commander in Texas, where he was responsible for the support to all US Army operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.