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Durham's new city manager - Part 2: Bonfield's Pensacola legacy

(This is the second in a three-part series on the selection of Tom Bonfield as Durham's new City Manager. Part one: Why Bonfield left Pensacola for the Bull City. In this section: Bonfield's Pensacola legacy. Part three: Can Bonfield lead Durham?)

Let's move along by looking back, for a moment, to Tom Bonfield's record as manager of Pensacola. How did he do in managing this city of 53,000? How effective was he in steering what appears to be a larger (per capita) governmental entity than Durham has?

As with any such question like this, it really depends who you ask. Since putting out some pleas with Pensacola media and politicians for input on Bonfield, I've received a divergent range of opinions on his effectiveness.

Most of those have been very positive, with a significantly smaller number of negative replies. Which shouldn't be surprising. Ask a long-time Durham civic activist what they think of Bill Bell, for instance, and you'll get a very different answer than what you'll hear from the mouthbreathers who leave disparaging comments about Durham on the WRAL message boards.

Interestingly, some of the negative comments on Bonfield seem focused on complaints that Pensacola is a stagnating city in a boom state, with a declining population and economic woes. Just as Florida's northwest-most point on the panhandle is set back in the Central time zone, Pensacola seems (according to its critics) to be running perpetually a metaphoric hour past the rest of the peninsula.

From an outsider's perspective looking in, I'm sympathetic to the blame Durham's government receives -- frequently wrongly, in my opinion -- for circumstances that are in many ways reflective of industrial transformation and socioeconomics, not public policy choices.

Similarly, I'm not sure it's fair to look back at Bonfield's performance on anything but the operation of the local government, as opposed to the overall health of Pensacola's economy and growth.

Ultimately, as one member of Pensacola's city council told me: he generally ends up on the opposite side of the issues from Bonfield, but respects that Bonfield's been part of a system of failure that stems from issues far deeper than those one city manager can or can't solve, and that Bonfield was fundamentally a good man and good manager in a tough town.

Still, I think it's helpful to explore both sides of the accomplishments, including both the generally positive comments and some of the criticisms that have come up, too.

The Steady Hand: One of the consistent positives coming across about Bonfield's tenure has been the role he's played as a straight-shooter, above-the-board staff member in a region with a long history of corruption, from bought-off-votes, to commissioners passing out the cash, to a county manager caught getting boats and condos from developer pals.

According to one source, Bonfield has "stayed above the fray," both in terms of rising above the underhanded dealings that have reportedly been pervasive in local politics, and in terms of maintaining a neutral role with developers and land-use powers, which bear a disproportionate level of power in a state like Florida than they do here in Durham.

He "remained amazingly clean given the nature of the town," this source told us. The N&O pointed out that ethics charges were levied against Bonfield and a slew of other local officials related to an incident involving the son of the Escambia County (Fla.) administrator, but Bonfield and all others were summarily cleared of any wrongdoing.

Bonfield also reportedly showed good instincts separating the clinical practice of city management from the politics, presenting the facts in the most neutral way he could to elected officials, then allowing them to handle the politics and machinations from there.

"Very competent" was an overriding theme in the accounts of Bonfield given by local insiders, with one noting that his particular credentialing from the International City-County Management Association is of a level attained by fewer than 5% of city managers nationwide.

Similarly, Bonfield receives widespread praise for his relations with his staff, who reportedly have a great affinity for the ten-year manager. Bonfield also earns a nod from some observers for being, in the words of one, "a very capable manager [who has] made some excellent picks for city department heads."

(That said, BCR asked multiple sources how Bonfield had handled disciplinary or work peformance issues with underperformers; we weren't able to elicit a situation that had come up. Let's hope this points to really extraordinary department head selection, and not a conflict avoidance with difficult personnel issues.)

One area that's gotten some press: Bonfield was dinged in 2006 for the decision to pass over a committee's choice for the new fire chief, bypassing a female candidate in favor of an extended search and, later, an in-house promotion. Allegations of sexism followed but don't appear to have been long for the public discourse. That said, another source has noted that concerns over the tendency of the city to promote from within rather than searching externally for candidates has dogged the administration, though it's unclear how much merit those concerns should earn.

Interpersonal Relations: One observer gives Bonfield credit for being "tactful" and able to work well with others, including those who have divergent views. Another, though, argues that Bonfield could be more discrete in his dealings, noting a recent Pensacola public meeting on the city's charter review when this source overheard the manager talking "in dismissive tones" about some of the suggestions raised during the meeting, and labelling them "dumb."

At the same time, one insider notes that Bonfield brings a more clinical than paternal approach to the role, and that he has a tendency to be stand-offish, and not warm, on an interpersonal level. Bonfield made reference to this himself in the pull quote from the N&O's coverage: "Most people say one of my detriments, so to speak, is I'm not a very emotional person. I don't have a lot of gregarious moments, and I don't have a whole lot of sad moments. But I must admit that today is one of those 'I'm-pretty-darn-excited moments.' "

A style that's emotionally neutral and calm but coupled with the ability to build good relationships with staff would promise to make Bonfield a good transition point from Patrick Baker, a point we'll expand upon in part three of this report.

Waterfront Redevelopment: One of the greatest accomplishments -- on paper only, so far -- in Bonfield's term is the passage by voters of support for a major waterfront redevelopment in the City of Five Flags. A $70 million dollar development is expected to bring a minor-league baseball stadium, park, offices, dining, retail and campus space for the University of West Florida.

The voter referendum was a contentious one, with heavy lobbying and advocacy on both sides of the issue, a story re-told well by Pensacola's Independent Week. The project itself reportedly became subject to a public vote after a protest petition filed by residents. Bonfield receives credit from one Pensacola media source for seeking intensive public input throughout the project.

During one dustup, a police officer tried to halt the efforts of a citizen's group to obtain signatures for a petition against the redevelopment while that group was standing on public, city-owned property. To Bonfield's credit, the city manager responded with an email the following day apologizing for the officer's actions, and reminding city staff via the City Attorney's office that such petitioning was legal.

Some have criticized Bonfield for the fact that work hasn't substantially begun since the 2006 project approval, for an effort underway since 1999. On the flip side, the project's initial financing was stymied by a Florida Supreme Court ruling that required voters to approve not just projects themselves but their financing mechanisms via referendum; Bonfield appears to have been a key player in a very recent workaround to that legal challenge, clearing the way (save for environmental review) for the project in what might end up being Bonfield's last signature contribution to the project and to Pensacola.

Growth and Government: One consistent challenge for Bonfield and the city administration has been Pensacola's economic decline. Monsanto, the U.S. Navy, and the St. Regis paper mill all downsized or closed facilities during the period. At the same time, some residents describe a steady flight of citizens outside the corporate limits.

Unlike Durham County -- in which the vast majority of residents live within the incorporated city limits -- Pensacola is a 53,000 person island inside a county with almost 300,000 residents, within a 440,000 person metropolitan area.

The population of the core city has shrunk by almost 10% since the 1990 Census, while unincorporated portions of Escambia County have actively resisted annexation by the municipality.

Pensacola sometimes comes under criticism for its tax rates and especially (in the local press) for the size of local government, with almost 1,000 employees and a $62 million payroll as of 2005. By contrast, Durham -- with four times the population -- is set for a $125 million payroll this year with about 2,300 staff. (On the flip side, as Bonfield notes in the papers, the City of Pensacola also operates a number of major facilities, including a seaport and airport, which can make a like-like comparison difficult.)

Similarly, there's been some criticism of Pensacola's city government in general for growing the size of its staff even as the population of the city has shrunk. Still, the presence of so many different business units under the umbrella of city government make a like-like comparison hard.

A starting point for comparison of the overall financial positions of the two cities comes from looking at Pensacola's General Fund, which covers public safety, planning, streets and sidewalks, economic development coordination, and parks & rec. (It excludes transportation projects, community redevelopment, housing, inspection services, and stormwater, however.) General fund departments total $53 million in this fiscal year -- of which 28% is raised via property tax, which brought in just $15 million in revenue for the city.

Pensacola's tax rate is $0.4598 per $100 of taxable property value, compared with $0.505 (revenue neutral) or $0.56 (proposed in the DOA FY09 budget) in the City of Durham in the coming year. Pensacola draws from a much smaller tax base, however -- about $3.4 billion to Durham's $22 billion. (Interestingly, Durham has four times the population but almost seven times the taxable property value of the City of Five Flags.) Durham's general fund is proposed for FY09 to draw 35% of its revenue from property taxes.

If you wrap together the Pensacola general fund with the special revenue funds -- which fund services ranging from the library, to stormwater, to debt service and housing -- you get to an approximately $120 million budget. Note that this figure excludes the airport and seaport, sanitation, and gas utility, all of which draw from service fees... and which have received some criticism from time to time for the higher rates they charge to unincorporated areas, though many municipalities follow that approach.

Which may be where some of the complaints stem from: on that general-services basis, and recognizing that some of the services offered don't map completely between the two cities, the per-resident tax burden in Pensacola comes to about $2,250 per resident this year, compared to about $1,700 in Durham.

Bonfield's drawn some criticism for the growth of government. During Bonfield's tenure, according to the calculations of one frequent critic of Pensacola city government, the total city budget rose 39.5%, with departmental salaries rising 62.6% (versus a 6% rise in the number of city employees), even as the population of Pensacola declined by 10%. The local weekly newspaper points out that the average salary per-employee in Pensacola stands at $50,000 (unclear if that's inclusive or exclusive of benefits), well above the average city per-capita income.

Pensions have been another source of criticism in Pensacola government. Although the city switched from a cheaper defined-contribution plan to a more-generous full pension plan a year before Bonfield arrived on the scene,the result has been (according, again, to a city critic) a ten-year rise in pension costs of 158%, with pension expenses as a percent of salaries now standing at 36%.

Of course, no city manager enacts a budget without the votes of a city council, although the growth figures and the reputation of Pensacola's council as a passive body may raise some eyebrows in Durham. All of which means that the financial bottom line -- the subject of so much discussion in Durham these days -- will remain an interestingpoint to watch in Bonfield's first year.

Racial Tensions: Like Durham, Pensacola has had its share of racial tensions, though none that hit the headlines so hard as our recent grassbound-hockey-game player kerfuffledid.

Still, as a Durham politico opined the other night, in the South, anytime you have a city that's counting it's flags the way Pensacola ("The City of Five Flags") does, watch out -- one of them's probably the Confederate flag. And. sure enough, that's one of the five flags that's flown over our Escambia County friends.

Sure enough, Bonfield confronted that issue early in his term. Eighteen months in, he announced that the city would replace the traditional Confederate battle flag -- once used to lead troops into battle, nowadays used primarily to herald the arrival of a beat-up rusted Ford truck or a country gal 'round these parts wearing one of those offensive "GRITS: Girls Raised In The South" t-shirts -- with the less well known, and ergo likely less-controversial, CSA national flag.

From what we can tell -- though he enraged some local Confederate groups in the process -- Bonfield appears to have navigated a political minefield well, justifying the change as one based on historical precedent (the national flag, not the battle flag, flew over Pensacola) as well as one supported by the local media and made unanimously by Council. Not a bad way to defuse a sticky situation.

More recently, though, the city administration has taken some heat for the relatively small amount of city contracts that have gone to minority-owned firms. The city has a Small Business Enterprise program instead of women/minority-owned business programs that are used in cities like Durham and have been used in other Florida cities, too.

Out of $8.4 million in SBE funds distributed in 2007, just $122,543 went to minority-owned firms, with $2 million going to women-owned firms, according to the Pensacola Independent News.

Look for this to be an interesting issue to watch for here in Durham, where the three publicly-announced finalists for the City Manager position all got a little bit of grilling on the subject during the open forum.



Many of the frustrating dealings I've had with Durham city (or county) have had to do with departments that were either understaffed, or where employees did not seem to be particularly dedicated to seeing that citizen complaints were resolved. So I'm encouraged, if anything, by Bonfield's record of growing city staff...but concerned by the allegation that he may have avoided staff discipline (which I emphasize was an assumption, not a stated fact).

I've met a lot of dedicated city employees who do great work. But I suspect that some are not held to a standard of performance any higher than showing up on time.

Kevin Davis

@CD: Just to clarify, there weren't allegations that he may have avoided staff discipline. The question I asked of Pensacola folks was, how has he _handled_ discipline issues, and folks couldn't think of a situation like that. My hope is that reflects that he was extraordinary in making hiring decisions, not a sign of avoided conflict.

Bill Davison

Ah yes, Rick Outzen did a fine job of sanitizing and rewriting this article.
Too bad it leaves out pertinent details and in some cases is blatantly false.

Kevin Davis


Rick didn't have anything to do with the article; in fact, he actually didn't respond to a request for an interview, though we did talk on his radio show, and his paper's archives were a source for some info on Bonfield.

This series (which will continue tomorrow, if all goes well) is sourced from conversations with politicos, media, and some plugged-in citizens in Pensacola.

And no one has "sanitized" or rewritten this article or other stories at BCR. (One statement on this post has been modified after a correspondent raised an issue that, upon rechecking of my notes, was a misstatement of a quote I'd written down from a source.)

If you have specific items on which you comment, the comments are open for your thoughts and those of other readers.

jack parkin

As a recent transplant from Pensacola and Escambia County, I can attest to the veracity of the series on Manager Bonfield and the issues he faced in Pensacola. Durham could not have made a better choice.

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