BELLEAIR BLUFFS — City officials are a close-knit group. But like any group or family, once in a while there is squabbling.
"We just need to power through. When we do have a commission squabble or staff squabble, we call it our Thanksgiving dinner," said City Administrator Debra Sullivan, with a laugh, who is in her 20th year as a city employee.
Sullivan started working for the city as city clerk in 2002 and was promoted to administrator in 2018.
From development issues to new infrastructure to relationships with nearby local governments and concerns about coyotes, Sullivan has dealt with her share of issues.
And now the pandemic.
"It's been an interesting year, to say the least," Sullivan said.
However, the city had no major staffing issues because there are only seven employees.
"We work really well together. And things don't get lost in minutiae," Sullivan said. "It was just making sure our residents didn't feel a bump in the road. Our goal was to make things as smooth as possible for them."
Some meetings were canceled, and social distancing practices were put in place when they resumed having meetings. Work on the air filter system was conducted along with cleaning efforts. Employees were tested regularly.
Sullivan worked home for some of the time and continues to work from home one day a week.
"We just got back to norm," she said.
One of the highlights for Sullivan as COVID promoted local governments to cancel events was being able to hold the annual outdoor holiday event in December.
"Very well attended, very successful. It was actually the first year that all three events (in the city) that normally get held in December were held on the same night," Sullivan said.
Asked what gives her the most satisfaction as city administrator, Sullivan said it's the way residents, the businesses, and the commission interact with each other.
Most of the city commissioners have held their positions for more than a decade.
"We have learned to work together and grow together. We have done some remarkable things in this small city," she said.
Among the most noteworthy projects undertaken during her tenure in Belleair Bluffs is the $3 million fire station, which opened in 2017.
The project was a collaborative effort among the municipalities of Belleair Bluffs, Belleair and Largo and the county government — which had never been done before, she said.
Asked for her best accomplishment over the years, Sullivan said, "I honestly feel like bringing the leadership and staff together in the same mindset of having the foresight to keep Belleair Bluffs growing and moving through the times," Sullivan said. "We are so small … but it is important to keep looking toward the future, making sure we're answering everybody's concerns and needs.”
She's also proud of plans to improve the park at City Hall, such as through a $100,000 donation from the Bluffs Plaza Shopping Center owner David Berolzheimer in November and a $50,000 grant. City officials are currently discussing design elements for the park.
City Clerk Alexis Silcox said she enjoys working for Sullivan because of "her wealth of knowledge."
"She has impeccable taste, too, because she hires really great people," Silcox said with a laugh.
Silcox, who started working for the city in May 2017 and was promoted to city clerk about a year later, credits Sullivan for the skills she learned.
"I don't feel I would have excelled as much as I have in this position had it not been for her," said Silcox, who has been been president of the Pinellas County Municipal Clerks Association.
"She is an excellent fit for this city. We are hoping to retain her," Sullivan said.
Sullivan notes that the city of has about 2,500 residents who have a common goal.
"It has all the amenities of a big city but we keep such a small-town feel," she said.
Married with two adult sons, Sullivan, who lives in the unincorporated area, said she is not looking to retire soon.
She credited city leaders for being community-oriented.
"They are so responsive. It's hard to change something that's working so well, so my goal would be to watch it retain its charm and progressiveness in the future as the younger ones take over," she said.
Recalling the holiday event at the community center in December, Sullivan said a group of children who live in Belleair Bluffs sang for attendees. She had first met one of the children when the girl was a year old.
"Now she is like 12. You just watch them all grow here," she said. "To spend my career in a city like this has been a true blessing to me."