It's been a decision the Fort Myers Beach Town Council has been anticipating for almost a year: the next town manager.
And, the five members have each said that this next choice was one of the most important things they would vote on, as they were selecting someone to take the helm of the town and navigate it through the obstacles now and in the future.
Their selection? Roger Hernstadt of Marco Island.
Roger Hernstadt, 63, said he plans to relocate to Fort Myers Beach with his wife, Jessica.
Hernstadt has a wealth of Florida experience under his belt. He's had in his words a "round-up career," starting as a code compliance manager for Public Works in Miami Dade County. He moved on to several other department manager positions there, including public services and administration, assistant director of public works and director of the office of capital improvements. Then, he moved to assistant city manager for the city of Miami. From there, he worked as the city manager of Marathon; and most recently was the city manager for Marco Island since 2014.
"In many cases, a smaller city may not be able to attract someone of my experience," he told the council during his in-person public interview Monday. "But I think I am an excellent candidate to help you move forward."
Hernstadt was selected out of four finalists, who were whittled down from a list of 77 applicants. He and his wife, Jessica, plan to relocate to Fort Myers Beach with their step-son, who is leaving for college in the fall. While Roger was in interviews Monday, his wife was researching real estate options, he said.
Besides his hefty resume of managerial experience, many members of council appreciated the connections he had around the state at various levels of government that he could utilize not only for consultation in Fort Myers Beach but also for negotiations and improvement projects. While in Marathon, he negotiated with both the county and Florida Department of Transportation to enter into a cost-share project, replacing the pedestrian 7-mile bridge which was in disrepair. Through the negotiations, he was able to get FDOT to pay for a majority of the project.
"What I expected to find was someone who had been in government so long that they were stale," Council Member Joanne Shamp said. "His comment about getting a guy like him, I think that's true. I appreciate the depth of knowledge and experience he brings."
Her comments were echoed by other members.
"He's got it, he knows it, he's articulate in his experiences," said Council Member Bruce Butcher. "My only reservation is, can we make a contract with him?"
Hernstadt told the council during the interview that if offered the job, he would be available almost immediately to begin. He resigned from his position with Marco Island on Feb. 6 of this year.
In a letter to the Marco Island council, Hernstadt said he felt the town might need a "new beginning." Although he offered to stay at his position until July 7, he gave the council the option to terminate immediately. The council majority voted to accept his resignation, and a council member commented that he believed Hernstadt did not feel he had the support of the council, despite support from the community.
During that Feb. 6 meeting, a resident spoke during public comment to speculate on the resignation, saying the resignation was spurred by an action taken by Hernstadt: without council approval he signed an application in the fall that designated the city as a co-applicant on a developer's application to build a controversial hotel project. The signature did not give the city's consent for approval of the project, but the action did not sit well. In his defense, Hernstadt said he consulted the city attorney and was told he had the authority to sign, and that the agreement said either party could terminate at any time, and the city council ultimately decided not to participate with the developer's project.
The situation was discussed at Hernstadt's private interviews with the Fort Myers Beach council members.
Although the vote to offer him the job was unanimous, not every council member shared the majority's enthusiasm. Vice Mayor Tracey Gore said his years of experience were the opposite of what she wanted.
"I wanted someone fresh. Someone with lots of years in government is not always a good thing," she said. "I still have reservations."
Mayor Dennis Boback said he at first also was concerned that Hernstadt would be "too experienced," but the phone, private and public interviews alleviated those fears about it.
"He wants to come here and he has experience that will help us," Boback said.
Gore's top choice - and the runner-up, should negotiations with Hernstadt fall through - was the candidate "superstar," Joshua Gruber of Beaufort, South Carolina. At 36, Gruber interviewed with an enthusiasm that caught the attention of all five council members. He would have easily been offered the job, but with one flaw: "He loves South Carolina the way we love Fort Myers Beach," Council Member Anita Cereceda said.
Gruber, currently serving as the deputy county administrator for Beaufort, said in his interview Monday that if offered the job, it would take him two weeks to consider the offer and a 30-day notice to his current employer before he'd be ready to move. And, he said he had to be sure the move was right for his young family, his wife and two sons.
"He's prepared, he's young, and he's energetic," Shamp said. "This would only be a stepping stone, and my huge concern is that his heart isn't in it."
All the council agreed he would make an excellent choice, but one of the main goals of selecting a new manager was to find someone who wanted to keep the role for an extended period. The town has had frequent managerial turnover in the last 10 years and the council wanted to hire someone as much for guidance as stability.
"I agree with the comments, I think he's someone I'd like to keep in touch with," Cereceda said.
Hernstadt enthusiastically offered to sit down with the town attorney Monday night, but they agreed to begin negotiations Tuesday. He will work with Interim Town Manager Jim Steele for a transition period, and Steele will return to retirement. Steele took on the role of interim after the council fired former manager Don Stilwell in June 2016, just weeks before budget season.
Hernstadt did attend the Monday night ReFresh Estero Boulevard public meeting.
"I think he's a gentleman who wants to be in our area of the world," Shamp said.