Under Fire

By Hannah Wallace June 30, 2005

It wasn't a typical government exercise, but Michael McNees decided to give it a shot, anyway. Sitting around a table with the department heads of the city of Sarasota, McNees tried an acting exercise he had learned at Florida Studio Theatre. The 10 department heads were to count aloud from one to 10, with each person saying one number. The trick was that no one was assigned a number and no one knew who might count next. Each person had to watch everyone else to gauge whether they were getting ready to speak. The exercise works best in a group that knows all the other members well and is sensitive to every member's body language. If two people called out the same number at the same time, the group had to start counting over again.

The city government folks got it right on the first try.

"It's about training yourself in the energy and rhythm of the group, knowing your moment, knowing when to step back," says McNees. "They totally nailed it. People wouldn't have expected it from a bunch of bureaucrats."

For McNees, the exercise demonstrated how well his staff works together. But it also illustrates an aspect of his management style-stepping back and allowing his employees to work without micromanagement-that's recently landed him in hot water. In February, McNees was at the center of uproar about 550,000 gallons of raw sewage that was dumped into Hudson Bayou, a spill he says he was not told about until around the same time city commissioners found out. When residents of the affected area learned that a similar large-scale spill had occurred a year ago and neither residents nor commissioners were informed (McNees says he had not known about that prior spill either), he became a lightning rod for criticism.

About the first Hudson Bayou spill, McNees admits, "A bad judgment call was made by an individual [Bill Hallisey, the city's public works director] to not bring the information forward." It is a one-time error, he stresses, with no evidence of a pattern of behavior that should reflect badly on the department. "I'm slow to generalize the functioning of a 20-member team based on one individual judgment call," he says.

But the problems didn't stop there. In April, at another impassioned meeting, commissioners attacked McNees when they learned that city employees had watched as Oak Ford residents dredged wetlands without a permit last year. McNees, however, says he had notified the commissioners that Oak Ford residents had been denied the permit, and that the employees who watched the dredging assumed it was occurring on Hi Hat Ranch property, not city property.

Depending on whom you talk to, McNees, 49, is either so incompetent that he doesn't know what his staff is doing; so loyal to his people that he's willing to protect them blindly at the risk of his own reputation; or a good administrator who's navigating the city through a challenging growth spurt despite confusing leadership from the commission.

"It is part of the nature of this job that you are going to get criticized, and criticized publicly," says McNees. "What happened in Hudson Bayou happened, and we need to address it. People have every right to be upset and concerned. I'm disappointed that I became the issue at one point to some degree for only saying that city employees deserve due process before we publicly hang them."

"I recognize it's an administrative post and not an easy job, but I don't think you have to view citizens as the enemy," argues Susan Chapman, president of the Hudson Bayou Neighborhood Association and a leading voice in the push for an independent investigation into the sewage spill. Chapman is outraged at how difficult she says McNees made it for residents to get to the bottom of what happened, and at what she sees as defensive behavior on McNees' part. "I think he takes it all very personally. He should have known; he's not on top of things. Or if he did know, he's corrupt."

Jean Merritt, director of human resources for Collier County, rejects that point of view. She once reported to McNees and considers him a mentor.

"He's a consummate professional," says Merritt. "He gave you a lot of freedom to do your work. He expected results, and he got them. He trusted his employees."

"Mike is very loyal," agrees Edward Finn, financial officer for Allen Concrete. Finn was hired by McNees to work for Collier County at one time, and the two became fast friends and still travel together to climb mountains or scuba dive. "Mike's style is to hire and surround himself with the best people possible, give them broad leadership-ethical leadership-and then allow them to do the best job they can."

Mayor Mary Anne Servian met McNees when she was president of the St. Armands Circle Residents Association and was invited to meet the candidates for the city manager position.

"I kind of liked how he said to them, 'You need to let me do my job,'" says Servian. "Mike is very much an independent manager. He has very strict lines between his duty and what's his commissioners' duty. The problem is, because he sees things so black and white, he doesn't necessarily understand that many of these things that happen in his agency affect the commissioners. He needs to be sure he keeps us up to date, just so we're not blindsided like we've been lately."

But if his detractors say McNees mishandled the sewage spills and came across as aloof, arrogant and even unprofessional, others see him as simply trapped in the pitfalls of the position. Being a city manager is a challenging task at the best of times; it might be even harder when reporting to five commissioners who often disagree, and at a time when many residents are alarmed at watching their charming little town suddenly morph into a city.

"Mike sometimes has a problem in dealing with people who are critical of him," says Kerry Kirschner, a former mayor and current executive director of the Argus Foundation, a public policy organization. "A number of people in the commission have run into Mike's temper. But it's difficult to judge Mike McNees' performance with a commission that doesn't give him clear direction. If there's dissension among the commissioners and they don't get behind him, then he's being put in survival mode, rather than show-leadership-and-do-your-job mode. When he shows leadership, he's criticized for sticking his neck out. The only criticism I have of Mike, and I think it's due to his frustration, is watching what he says. I find Michael very engaging in a private meeting, not engaging in a public meeting."

McNees admits that "cocktail party" scenarios are not his forte, but insists that he does not get defensive about criticism of his work.

"I do great in large groups if I have a purpose or a role to play," says McNees. "But I am not by nature gregarious. I'm more of a one-on-one person. I have tended in my life to be shyer, and that tends to be misinterpreted. I've heard aloof, or at worst arrogant. I've been a shy youth most of my life growing up, and that guy is still there."

The son of a Midwestern high school principal and dental assistant, McNees was a chemistry major at Indiana University and later got an M.B.A. from Louisiana Tech University. An avid athlete who once considered trying to qualify for the Olympic track trials, McNees counts among his most thrilling memories running the prestigious Drake Relays and emerging from the tunnel into the stadium to the roar of tens of thousands of spectators.

"The best thing about being a track athlete is, you have this limit, and slowly, over time, week after week, month after month, that limit changes," says McNees. "You find yourself, four years later, doing things you never imagined you would do."

Another moment he won't forget is when a friend talked him into auditioning for a musical in Naples. That turned into a long-running relationship with the theater, first with the Naples Players, of which he served as president, and now with Sarasota's FST. Performing in front of large audiences, whether as an actor or athlete, may sound incongruous for someone as reserved as McNees says he is, but actors are often notoriously shy, and he says both activities provide him with the challenge he looks for in every aspect of his life. It's that same quest for challenge that he says encouraged him to work his way up over a span of 12 years, from an entry-level Collier County utilities position to assistant county manager/chief operating officer. He was a runner-up for the Collier County manager position that ultimately went to someone else, so when the Sarasota city manager position opened up in 2001, McNees saw it as a way to run his own ship and took a pay cut to be here. So far during his tenure, he says he is most proud of being involved in downtown redevelopment and economic revitalization in Newtown.

"It's a tough time to be city manager because so many things are changing," says Servian. "Sarasota is outgrowing some of our long-time employees. There are a lot of growing pains, and he's a lightning rod, as the commission is. I think Mike is caught in the middle a lot. Anything that goes wrong, he ends up taking the heat for."

McNees admits wryly that taking the heat seems to be par for the course for the Sarasota city manager. But he says he is not worried about his annual evaluations this fall or about his future here in Sarasota, and hopes that the commissioners don't forget that he had a role to play in everything that went well this year as well as everything that didn't.

"I know things get hysterical politically," McNees says. "There's a culture here for making the city manager the guy you can yell at. And if that's the job description, that's fine. I try to do the best job I can every single day. All I look for is a little fairness."

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