Impact of election, split commission are issues facing new manager
Union County commissioners put an end to a three-month county manager search Oct. 29, naming former Seminole County, Fla., Manager Cindy Coto to the position.
The 55-year-old Coto, who officially takes office Nov. 15, steps into an uncertain situation, facing a divided board and newly elected commissioners who already voiced their disapproval after they were excluded from the hiring process.
“I’m pretty thorough when I apply for a position, so I knew about Union County’s challenges coming in,” Coto said. “I feel I can overcome the concerns if given a chance. I have done a lot of work in economic development. I have experience in water and wastewater (needs). I think I can be an asset to this county.”
After applying for the Union County job, Coto said she collected a variety of data, to be as informed as possible. She read through the county’s budget and study on fire services and took a trip to the Twelve Mile Creek Water Treatment Plant.
“I try to help things run as efficiently and effectively as possible,” Coto said. “To do that, I needed to know how things operate.”
Coto, Union County’s first female county manager, has an undergraduate degree from the University of Central Florida with an emphasis on business administration, elementary education, social science and humanities. Under terms of the contract, she will receive a $155,000 annual salary, a $1,500 monthly housing allowance for six months and a $600 monthly car allowance. If the county commissioners terminate her 2 1/2-year contract earlier than July 2013, the county will owe Coto a full year’s salary in severance pay.
The amount of severance pay could become an issue, once the new board takes over. With terms for three of the five commissioners expiring at the end of November, people wondered why the decision to hire a manager wasn’t left up to the new board that takes office Dec. 6. Candidates for the positions also wondered why they weren’t consulted or at least brought in on the process, arguing the new board should make the hire not a group where the majority is leaving. The three newly elected commissioners, Jerry Simpson, Todd Johnson and Jonathan Thomas, issued a statement two days before the vote on Coto, criticizing the hire and promising “swift and decisive action” to guarantee effective government once their term begins. Hoping to break the ice, Coto reached out to each member Oct. 28, calling each individually.
“I received a copy of the press release sent by the three individuals, and I just wanted to provide outreach, let them know my perspective,” Coto said. “I felt it’s incumbent on me to extend a hand as the new person coming in. When I’m judged, however, I would hope it would be on my performance.”
New commissioners Thomas and Simpson said their statement was misunderstood.
“I think a lot of people are reading too much into ‘swift and decisive action,’ ” Thomas said. “I’m starting that action right now, by doing my homework on Mrs. Coto. I want her to have a fair chance. We just have to make sure that we have the right manager in place to move Union County forward. “Our style of management isn’t like the current board majority. We’re not going to micromanage. So we need someone who can run the county effectively.”
Simpson agreed, saying, “We haven’t even met the lady. So until that happens, I don’t know that we can say much.”
Coto previously served as the manager for Volusia County, Fla., from 2000 to 2005, then took over as manager for Seminole County. Both counties are larger than Union. Seminole reported 413,204 residents in 2009, while Volusia had 495,890 residents. By comparison, Union County reported a population of 198,645 in 2009.
But it’s how her last two jobs ended that have some people questioning her hiring. Coto took over in Volusia just after the 2000 election and then resigned five years later. In minutes from the 2005 financial workshops, commissioners criticized Coto for the size of Volusia’s budget, and she resigned soon after, citing their lack of confidence. In the same September 2005 meeting when they accepted her resignation, however, Volusia commissioners approved a 12 percent budget increase.
Coto served 3 1/2 years in Seminole County. Seminole commissioners fired her on Oct. 13, 2009, and minutes from that meeting reveal no accusations of wrongdoing. Rather the board appears split about what direction their county should take.
According to the minutes, Seminole County Commissioner Michael McLean said the board “has tried to come together to work towards a shared vision, and as of today they don’t have that. The expectation of getting there is limited.”
One of Coto’s supporters, Seminole County Commissioner Carlton Henley, threatened to quit at the meeting, arguing that firing Coto was a political move.
Coto said she has no regrets of her time in either county. During her three years in Seminole, she repeatedly brought a balanced budget recommendation before commissioners without having to raise taxes, she said.
“I respect any elected body deciding who their (manager) is,” Coto said. “I’m very proud of my work in the county, and I think (as a staff), we set them in a direction with fiscal stability.”
The minutes and budget documents from Seminole’s 2008-09 fiscal year detail a county struggling with the economy, as officials ordered a 23 percent cut in staff.
“We saw funds leave through property tax reform, growth slowing and at the same time, (we were) forced to look at alternative methods of providing water to residents,” Coto said. “But we used what we had without impacting services.”