by SC Publisher Shannen Hayes
A search that began four months ago ended Thursday, Sept. 30, when Sanibel City Council unanimously selected Dana Souza to be the next city manager and internal candidate Keith Williams as the alternate. They were among three finalists narrowed from 96 applicants.
Vice Mayor Richard Johnson and Councilman Mike Miller initially cast their ballot for Williams as their first choice, but they agreed to officially vote for Souza as a sign of unified support for him.
“I believe it is critically important that we demonstrate our support,” said Vice Mayor Johnson. “Although I did not initially select Mr. Souza, it is obvious he is our selected choice and I want to make sure he understands he has five members of council that will provide direction to him.”
Souza brings 36 years of experience in local government with 11 cumulative years in Southwest Florida – six years on Marco Island and five years in Naples. Councilman John Henshaw gave weight to Souza’s experience in these nearby coastal communities, as well as his management and leadership skills.
“(Souza) has the experience in leadership to lead a city staff and services as directed by city council,” said Henshaw. “He certainly has a steep learning curve, but I believe he has the ability to help us through the next phase of our lives dealing with resiliency and sustainability.”
When Souza was the Parks, Recreation and Sustainability Director for the City of Greenville, S.C., he executed sustainability efforts which included the establishment of the Green Ribbon Committee as an advisory board, development of Greenhouse Gas Inventory and a Climate Action Plan.
Councilman Scott Crater also gave weight to Souza’s background in resiliency and sustainability. He expressed the need for long-range planning and city employee compensation planning, both of which Souza has experience. Crater also pointed out Souza expressed his appreciation of the Sanibel Plan. “For me, he is the most impressive and a natural leader,” said Crater.
Mayor Holly Smith said her criteria for the next city manager included proven leadership, a depth of knowledge across all governmental departments, integrity, experience in strategic planning – something the city has not done in eight years – team building skills and having time for citizens and city staff.
She reported hearing the highest recommendations for Souza from well-respected leaders who have worked with him. She said he was called “one of the best.” And Souza was her top choice.
Williams was selected as the alternate, which means he would become city manager in the event Souza is not hired. Williams has been with the city for nine years and currently serves as Community Services Director and City Engineer.
During his career with the city, Williams has played key roles in several major projects such as improvements to the Donax Waste Water Treatment Plant and the final phase of the sewer expansion, as well as events such as Hurricane Irma and the fish-kill cleanup in 2018.
He garnered strong support from several community members who felt he was right for the job and urged council to select him for the position. Councilman Miller shared endorsements for him from recently retired city manager Judie Zimomra, former mayors Kevin Ruane, Mick Denham, Steve Brown and Marty Harrity, as well as city directors.
“I surveyed a substantial majority of the direct reports to the city manager, in other words Director Williams’ peers,” said Miller. “All of the directors I surveyed were complimentary of Williams’ abilities and all of them said he would make a good city manager.”
But a memorandum prepared by Colin Baenziger & Associates search firm concluded Williams should continue serving in his current role. “We feel he would benefit from working under the tutelage of a second, highly competent city manager to improve the areas where he is weak,” the memo stated.
“In my view, Keith is an excellent director and a leader in his own right,” said Councilman Henshaw. But he thought Williams would benefit from more coaching and development. “I believe Keith can be an exceptional city manager with additional mentorship,” he said.
Some residents wanted to see council select an experienced candidate who would bring a fresh perspective, leadership and management. Resident Arlene Dillon said she thought it was time for “some new blood.”
“Judie (Zimomra) was here for 20 years, and she was great, but we are moving forward,” Dillon said. She added that “change is inevitable, but growth is optional. I want to see us grow and I think we need some new blood to do that.”
While there are still steps before Souza officially takes the city manager position, council is scheduled to set a start date in its Oct. 5 meeting. Since the retirement of Zimomra on Sept. 29, Finance Director Steve Chaipel has been acting city manager. He will fill the role until Souza begins with the city.