After almost 20 years on the force, Gulfport Chief of Police Curt Willocks retired a few weeks ago, naming senior lieutenant Robert Vincent as his replacement. I wonder how many Gulfportians realize how hard Willocks worked to create a safe city and how much of Gulfport’s national appeal has ties to that feeling of safety. Willocks’ leadership had residents leaving their cars unlocked, their doors and windows open, and money lying out on the kitchen table. These little signs that people felt safe, of course, gave him fits and he preached like a minister at a Baptist revival tent to get people to stop doing these things, but under his watch most Gulfportians felt safe.
Armchair bureaucrats and political hopefuls complain that Gulfport’s police force doesn’t have enough to do. Perhaps. When I lived in Gulfport I felt safer than anywhere else I’d ever lived, and when I moved to St. Petersburg I lived in a neighborhood where the police had way too much to do. Trust me, you want the former. Parts of Gulfport lie no more than a block from some of the higher crime areas of neighboring St. Petersburg, yet Gulfport has yet to succumb to crack dens and trap houses. Yes, Gulfport has crime, but what you find right across 49th Street makes even the “worst” parts of the city look like a scene from Leave it to Beaver.
Given Willocks’ success fighting crime in Gulfport, I wonder if Gulfport’s acting city manager Jim O’Reilly will overturn his decision to let Vincent lead the pack. I like O’Reilly a great deal, but the whole situation whereby an acting city manager gets to choose the new chief of police evokes images of Dr. Seuss’ elephant Horton, who sat on Mayzie’s egg all winter while she took a much-needed break.
I believe council made a good choice in naming O’Reilly acting city manager –how long ago was that, now?– but I also believe that council has their collective head in the sand about allowing this business of “acting” to continue apparently indefinitely. Why, I wonder, did council so quickly hire a new clerk but not a city manager? Is it because they are so arrogant as to believe they don’t need a manager? Do they believe they know enough about finance and risk management and staffing issues that they don’t need a city manager who has training in these areas? Is it because they so undervalue the position that they don’t think it matters if it’s done by an acting or a permanent manager? Is it to save a couple of bucks? I’m almost entirely certain that those scenarios couldn’t possibly be the case.
Many people, including some on Council, don’t believe the city manager runs the city, but a city manager knows more about the workings of the city and the citizens than any elected official. They’re the clearinghouse for every thing that happens and they handle things that no elected official even knows needs handling much less is qualified to do. Don’t misunderstand, Gulfport’s council is passionate about the city and I believe that even the ones I disagree with vehemently care about the city. I just don’t think they understand how insignificant they are to the workings of the city. They can say what direction they want to take the city but they cannot plot the course. That’s the city manager’s job. Council can say “go north” and they may know how to read the chart, but they don’t necessarily know how to use a sextant or man the helm.
Let’s get back to the police department. According to the city charter, if a council member even suggests a replacement for Willocks or any other city employee they’re committing a 2nd degree misdemeanor (section 305), so that means the acting city manager gets to decide who can best lead a group of men and women who get paid almost nothing to put their bodies between a bullet and you, if needed. Willocks thought Vincent was the best man for the job.
Is it wise for council to urge O’Reilly to find a different chief right now? I have no doubt that O’Reilly acts with the best interests of the city in mind, but is he the right one to make that decision? If council continues to fail to make the only move they have the power to make, which is hire a new city manager or offer O’Reilly the job permanently, he will have to do things that he really shouldn’t have to do. The city can’t have all “acting” department heads, and O’Reilly possesses more than the average amount of intelligence, so very soon he’ll probably try to stabilize the city.
How fair is it to expect O’Reilly to sit on this egg? When another city manager takes the helm, he’ll be back on level ground with the people he’s managed, but his decisions will linger. Not that many mission critical decisions get made over the course of a few weeks, but O’Reilly’s manned the helm for months. What if the new city manager doesn’t like O’Reilly’s decisions for police or fire chief? Those positions are at the pleasure or displeasure of the city manager, so the new manager could simply let them go. Is that fair to the people O’Reilly chooses?
Most importantly, how long can council reasonably expect O’Reilly to act like Horton, taking care of someone else’s egg? In the end, Horton hatches the egg and the baby bird looks a lot like Horton. The same thing will happen to Gulfport: it’s going to have O’Reilly’s mark on it. Council either needs to decide that’s a good thing and make O’Reilly the city manager for keeps or start actively looking for a new city manager. If council chooses, to quote Neil Peart, not to decide, they still have made a choice.