By REID TUCKER
The DeFuniak Springs City Council didn’t just select candidates for the recently vacated finance director position, it also voted to slow down the hiring process in order to get to know them better.
The Council voted unanimously at its Dec. 10 meeting, the only regularly scheduled meeting in the month, to interview Grace Harrison, Stan Martin, Thomas Carman and Jennifer Langston from among 18 applicants for the position. While the top four candidates undoubtedly received the most number of votes from the Council members and mayor during the selection process, Councilman Kermit Wright proposed holding off on conducting interviews until after the first of the coming year. Wright explained that part of the reason the city went through the same process only six months ago is because the time frame in which applicants were received and candidates were interviewed did not allow the Council enough time to give the matter the attention it deserved.
“When we previously went through the process of hiring for the position of finance director, we expedited the process and now we’re repeating the process six months later,” Wright said in a prepared statement to the board. “I honestly feel we’ll be better served by slowing down to allow us adequate time to evaluate each candidate’s background thoroughly.”
Wright recommended that, rather than conducting interviews on Tuesday, Dec. 18, after receiving the finalists’ information packets just four days prior, the Council should wait until after the holidays to conduct interviews and final selection. The Council voted 5-0 in favor of accepting Wright’s proposal, setting Jan. 8 as the date for interviews with hiring set to take place two days later. Special meetings will be held at 10 a.m. at City Hall in both instances.
Several other major items were on the agenda at the meeting, with perhaps the biggest being the approval of a $450 variance application fee to the developers of eagerly anticipated Taco Bell retail location project. Mark Siner, who represents the developer, attended the meeting to request the application fee waiver, with the public hearing for the variance (which deals with reducing front bumper setbacks along U.S. 331 S and Oaklawn Drive and reducing landscaping requirements) being set for Jan. 14. Assuming the variance is approved, a building permit can be obtained and construction on the project can begin as soon as February, with the restaurant likely being finished and open for business no later than early next fall, Siner said.
In a related agenda item, Councilman Henry Ennis made a motion for city staff to look into adopting a less-restrictive landscaping requirements ordinance for new development in the city limits. He said the current ordinance could be detrimental to small businesses in particular and could, in some cases, be one of the bigger expenses faced by any new business due to the number of trees required on commercial property. The Council voted 5-0 in support of the motion, and Ennis suggested that Okaloosa County’s landscaping regulations be used as a model.
Councilman Mac Work’s recommendation to the Council to direct Baskerville-Donovan, Inc., one of the city’s contractors, to begin the application process for a Rural Development Grant needed to secure funds for the construction of the long-proposed compressed natural gas fueling station also got a unanimous vote of approval from the board. Though no time frame for completion of the project was discussed at the meeting, the Council’s packet included projections of the potential revenues to be generated by the CNG station, which Work said will be self-sufficient after the first year, during which the city will lose $6,000. The plan includes converting nine city and county vehicles to run on CNG so as to maximize the fueling station’s benefit.
Work also broached discussion regarding a possible voter referendum to remove the office of mayor’s power to break a tie on a vote delivered by the Council. Mayor Harold Carpenter said he wholeheartedly supported such a move, as he had only once or twice exercised such a power in the last six to eight years. Furthermore, the mayor’s voting powers prohibit holders of the office from discussing matters of policy with members of the City Council, something which all current board members strongly disapproved of in light of Carpenter’s public service experience.
The Council voted unanimously to present the ordinance as a voter referendum at the next regularly scheduled meeting on Jan. 14.
Two other ordinances were approved for second reading and adopted at the meeting, both of which deal with how the city sets rental fees for the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood, Community Center and the lakeyard amphitheatre. The ordinances allow rental fees for the three properties to be divided between use by the public and use by governmental and non-profit organization and also enables the Council to set rental fees by resolution instead of necessitating new ordinances be drafted each time the rate is changed.
The meeting was rounded out by a series of employee-related items, as City Marshal Mark Weeks, Public Works Director Bill Holloway and City Manager Sara Bowers each got the Council’s approval regarding several positions. The DeFuniak Springs Police Department was granted permission to hire a communications officer, while Public Works got the go-ahead to hire a municipal worker for the streets department and temporary workers for the sanitation department. Bowers got unanimous approval for a revised airport services supervisor job description.
Finally, the Council approved a request from Bowers to designate Lake DeFuniak and the surrounding Chipley Park lakeyard as a stop on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.
Addendum: At a special meeting held Tuesday, Dec. 4, the City Council directed Baskerville-Donovan to pursue a $1 million economic development grant aimed at refurbishing and reequipping the vacant office building formerly used by Microspine in order to attract a major employer to the city. Work, who presented the plan to the Council, said the name of the company could not be revealed at the present time due to competition with six other states to recruit its business. The firm is projected to provide upward of 87 jobs and $5,332,681 in economic impact if it locates in DeFuniak Springs, with a total of 110 new jobs could be created as part of the multiplier effect.
The company is interested in purchasing the former Microspine building and eight acres surrounding it, and Work said it was “virtually guaranteed” that the firm would locate in the city if Baskerville-Donovan can secure the grant. If all goes according to plan, the new business could open its doors by next summer.