VISIONING SESSION: City leaders debate decision-making, morale

Matt Algarin

Making note of the lackluster results of the employee survey, Mayor Sam Seevers says the city has to get back to basics to remedy the negative results.

"It's a team effort," she said. "I think somewhere last year along the way we got away from that."

During Monday night's Visioning Session, city leaders spent nearly six hours at the Destin Library discussing everything from the year's successes to upcoming opportunities and what the council expects from the mayor and city manager, and vice versa.

The mayor said one of the most important things for the city council to do was give "succinct decisions" to the city staff. At times, she said, it might appear as though the council is "attacking" the staff.

"I don't think the intent is there, but it may come across that way," she said.

For Councilman Jim Bagby, it was in the best interest of the council to shy away from items that were not on the agenda that evening so they didn't have to rush to make a decision without the proper background information.

He cited a recent discussion where city leaders were presented with a request to fund a butterfly garden at the Destin Library through one of the city's committees. During the discussion, city leaders had suggested that the committee raise funds on its own to fund the roughly $900 project, as opposed to asking the city to fund it.

At the time, Bagby said the city wasn't in a position to make a decision.

"If it's not ripe for a decision, send it back to the city staff," he said.

Oversight and transparency were also important topics for Bagby. He said "the buck" stops with the city council when it comes to financial oversight, so if the council has to ask a few more questions to understand something, he was OK with that.

"We're $53 million in real debt when you add everything up," he said. "We are making decisions and we have bills coming due that we don't really have the money for."

"I never want to see this council, the mayor, or members of this council get hauled over to Tallahassee to answer questions," he added.

For City Manager Maryann Ustick, she expects the council to be completely engaged in conversations and ask questions during the process, not after.

Much like Seevers, giving the city staff a "clear direction" was key for Ustick, who is tasked with putting the wheels in motion after the council makes a decision.

"Once you approve that, we see that as clear direction to move forward," she said.

Respecting the city staff was also high on Ustick's list.

Given the lean economic times, she told the group that the city's senior staff has been "stressed" due to the "leanness" of the staffing levels. She said the city's staff must complete more tasks with less personnel than in year’s prior.

"It's been tough for them," she said. "They really do care, in addition to being a professional staff."