DUNEDIN — Deputy City Manager Doug Hutchens says as a matter of principle he never calls city commissioners by their first names.
He's known Moe Freaney for decades but still refers to her as Commissioner Freaney, even at restaurants.
"It's a respect thing. I think they deserve that," said Hutchens, 66, who retires at the end of this month.
That respect is mutual, as over the years Hutchens has been praised by colleagues and commissioners for his variety of work on issues and projects.
Hutchens has had key roles since he began working for the city in 1986, such as resolving complaints about dirty water, overseeing multimillion-dollar projects or serving as interim city manager following the departure of his former boss.
When former City Manager Rob DiSpirito resigned under fire from some city commissioners in January 2016, Hutchens, who had been deputy manager since October 2013, became interim city manager. Holding that position to September 2017, he said he never wanted to be the next Dunedin city manager. In a recent interview he gave a self-effacing explanation why.
"I was happy to help my community and my co-workers during that period. I think the expectations for me were to keep the powder dry and don't do anything stupid," Hutchens said.
He was only a few years away from retirement and believes his intention not to seek the position also helped in the recruitment process for a new city manager because applicants wouldn't be discouraged by any perception that a city employee had an inside track.
The city hired Jennifer Bramley in August 2017 to be city manager; Hutchens remained deputy manager.
In a meeting at that time, Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski praised Hutchens for his work as interim city manager.
"There really was only one person in our city that we could think of that was the right person for the (interim) job, and that was Doug,” she said.
34 years on staff
A native of Detroit, Hutchens has college degrees in construction management, civil engineering and systems management.
Among his career experiences, he was a cost engineer doing work related to the space shuttle program from 1983 to 1986 at the Kennedy Space Center.
The Challenger explosion put space-related activities on hold and the consulting corporation he worked for started laying off people. He saw an ad in the Tampa Tribune saying that the city of Dunedin was hiring for a position that interested him: assistant public works and utilities director. Hutchens made what he thought was an important stop along the way to Dunedin for an interview.
"I went to the Countryside Mall and changed into a suit and tie in the restroom," he said. "I was clearly overdressed compared to everybody else here. But it was all good," Hutchens said.
He thought that bad things come in three and he would only be in Dunedin for three years — similar to his tenures at his two previous jobs. Three years have turned into 34.
At the time he started work in Dunedin there were opportunities. The city was looking to address a water plant project, and officials wanted to bring in somebody who had project management experience in design and construction, he said.
"Back in those days residents would come to the City Commission with a mason jar that had water that looked like ice tea, it had so much rust in it," Hutchens said.
City staff got aggressive with pipeline replacement and then a water plant, which was brought online with a dedication ceremony in 1992.
"That made a huge difference in the water quality in town," he said.
Though he said all his work has been rewarding, his duties in utilities gave him the most satisfaction during his employment with the city.
"It was far more hands-on. I was able to get out and about a lot more than I have in recent years," he said.
"I went out to all the job sites; I got to know all the contractors, all our consultants. I had a lot more say and involvement in projects at that time," he said.
When the late former Public Works and Utilities Director Bob Brotherton left the city to start his own business in 2003, Hutchens was promoted to the position.
'A great partner and ambassador for the city'
During his tenure with the city, Hutchens served as project manager on design and construction of several other municipal facilities besides the city water and sewer treatment plants.
Those include the Dunedin Public Library, Dr. William E. Hale Activity Center, Dr. Martin Luther Jr. Recreation Center, fleet facility expansion for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, the city's fire department administration building and the solid waste administrative building.
He also has provided direct supervision over the spring training facilities to accommodate the Toronto Blue Jays in 1990, 2002 and 2021, reporting on the status of those projects at countless City Commission meetings.
Along those lines, Shelby Nelson, Toronto Blue Jays director of Florida Operations, at the Feb. 18 City Commission meeting called Hutchens a great partner and ambassador for the city, congratulating him on his upcoming retirement.
Nelson said he just wants to "let everyone know how much he (Hutchens) loves and cares about the city and how much he was a big cog as we went through this construction process" for TD Ballpark.
Hutchens said he has enjoyed working with the Jays officials.
"Very loyal. I think they have contributed to the benefit of the community," Hutchens said.
'A man of great integrity'
Besides Nelson, others who praised Hutchens include Freaney, who held administrative positions in Dunedin for 22 years and started working for the city at about the same time Hutchens did.
"I say first of all you can see Doug's handprints all over the city," she said, referring to all the projects he has overseen, such as his work on the new water and wastewater treatment plants.
Freaney remembers talking to a county official who had asked whether the recent $111 million stadium and player development projects were too big for Dunedin.
"I think a lot of us felt one of the reasons it wasn't too big was because we had Doug," Freaney said. "Because he had done so many projects; he had such a great skill set. He was such a steady Eddie and a detailed follow-through guy."
But value to the city has been much more than the projects that he's been involved in, said Freaney, a former assistant city manager and human resources director.
"Doug, first and foremost, is a man of great integrity," Freaney said, adding that's what is needed most in a public servant.
She also called him fair and compassionate with invaluable institutional knowledge.
"He doesn't have an ego. He wants to help; he wants to contribute; he wants to get things right," she said.
She has no doubt that Hutchens has all the skills to be a great city manager if he chose that career path.
Economic and Housing Development & CRA Director Bob Ironsmith, who has worked with Hutchens for 25 years, said he's found him to be great to work with.
"The reason is Doug always offers steady leadership. He's very consistent. He's very insightful. He's thoughtful, and he's very accessible," Ironsmith said.
On matters that may be considered sensitive or political, Huthens offered a good approach for Ironsmith.
"Doug has been kind of a mentor, someone I could learn from," he said. "And he's helped me throughout the years to think of things in a little different fashion or to interject a different idea or thought."
His legacy project
If Hutchens has a regret as his retirement looms, it's not getting closure on plans for a new city hall — a project he has been involved in for 21 years.
It was identified through a space-needs analysis. A list of city buildings were identified that needed to be addressed.
Over the years, he said, the commission was smart in its strategy for replacing aging buildings.
"They took care of fire stations as a priority. They took care of the youth in the community by doing the MLK rec center. They took care of the seniors when they did the Hale Center. They took care of families by doing the Community Center," Hutchens said.
Those were prioritized as the first projects, and commissioners saved city hall and a new swimming pool as the last couple of big projects.
He hoped the construction of a new city hall would be his legacy project.
"So the City Hall project has been near and dear to me, and I would have loved to be here to see that through the construction, but that's not a possibility," Hutchens said.
"It was kind of bittersweet. It was like man, I got this close, going back to 2000, 21 years ago … The timing just doesn't work," Hutchens said.
However, he called Bramley gracious for letting him be involved in the design process.
He noted that staff will come to the commission either at the end of this month or sometime next month to seek approval for reward of a contract for the construction of the new city hall at Wood Street and Louden Avenue.
He expects projects will remain challenging.
"The one thing I like about Dunedin for its size, it's a full-service community. It takes care of itself. I think it's that Scottish pride. We don't outsource garbage. We pick up our own garbage. We have our own water plant, we have our own sewer plant. We have our own fleet. There were a lot of cities our size to outsource that," he said.
Along those lines, costs continue to rise and budgets are getting tighter, and the Penny for Pinellas doesn't go far, Hutchens said.
"So I think like most other local governments, managing costs and staying within the budget and still providing quality service is a challenge," he said.
"We can reduce services and save money, but that's not our style," he said.
No plans to run for commission seat
Hutchens is mulling over his retirement plans.
Married for 41 years, he and his wife, Rachelle, a regional program coordinator for Hospice, live in Dunedin. They have three married daughters and sons-in-law and five grandkids.
"They all live locally, which is really nice because now I don't have to retire and move somewhere to be around my grandkids," Hutchens said.
Traveling to national and state parks, barbecuing and doing woodwork are among Hutchens' hobbies that he plans to engage in during his retirement.
He is also considering teaching motel and restaurant building management, as he had at Schiller University, involving air-conditioning, electrical systems and related topics.
Hutchens has no aspirations of running for City Commission. His wife has asked him if he would consider that.
"I said, ‘No.’ That's not who I am. What people don't recognize is how demanding that job is — a lot of commitment. It's not something you would take lightly. You don't do it for the glamor. You do it for the love of the community. It's a lot of work. I don't see myself doing that," he said.
He takes pride in trying to have a good relationship with commissioners over the years.
"If we are not honest and don't give them our best recommendations, they can't make good policies. So we never want to mislead them or try to play games. I've always tried to maintain that mindset," Hutchens said.