By CRA News Service
Managers of municipalities and major-league baseball teams share a common fate: short careers with one team.
Delray Beach’s David Harden has been an exception, as one of the longest-tenured city managers in Florida. He has been overseeing the day-to-day operation of his city for more than 22 years.
But Harden recently announced he will retire in January, ending a run as one of the most powerful City officials.
“I’m a little bit anxious. Retirement has never been a goal of mine unlike other folks,” Harden said. “It has been my privilege to work with an incredible staff, dedicated city commissioners, and innumerable passionate, involved citizens who love Delray Beach.”
The Okeechobee native has served seven mayors in his 22 years. During his tenure, the city grew from 669 employees to 807 (mostly police and firefighters because of annexation) and his budget has soared from $35 million to $93 million.
He has been the subject of criticism both from elected officials and residents. Some police union reps and officers say he is too tight.
The retired U.S. Navy captain came into Delray Beach city leadership in 1990 at a time when the city was mired with unprofessionalism and mismanagement.
He was hired him from Winter Park to manage the city’s reconstruction. Atlantic Avenue, downtown, was hemorrhaging and many avoided the area. Shutters on the rundown, restaurant-less strip of tired storefronts shops were pulled down at 5 p.m. Today, under his vision, the strip is now the place to be for scrumptious meals, upscale shopping and family festivals. People want to live downtown and developers are jockeying for available land, even if it abuts the railroad track, where the train rumbles by night and day.
Commissioners also directed Harden to look at the issues facing the police department and make the necessary changes partially because morale was almost as bad as in City Hall. He ultimately persuaded Police Chief Charles Kilgore to resign.
He was also charged with ensuring the commission’s goals, objectives and policies were carried out, which wasn’t always done, said Robert Barcinski, assistant city manager, who has been with the city since 1984.
He took the helm and has been a soft-spoken power behind the scenes leading his team to meet the challenges of providing quality services to Delray Beach residents despite a slowed economy, reduced city staff, and tight budget. In particular, many praised Harden for professionalizing the City Manager’s office.
Customer service was critical to him – how staff treated the residents, customers and commissioners.
“He built a sense of teamwork, fairness, honesty and accountability without micromanaging,” Barcinski said. “He stressed being a team, all of us working together for the same goals and objectives and to support each other. He instilled that in us.”
Harden always told us: “we may or may not agree with commission’s decisions but it was our job to make sure those decisions were carried out,” he added.
Harden said he is also proud of the change in atmosphere in the southwest and northwest sections. When he arrived in town, there was a sense of hopelessness. He recalls asking Kilgore to put foot patrols on West Atlantic Avenue and the chief refused, saying that it was too dangerous.
“When we started doing community policing in our minority neighborhoods, a former commissioner from one of our retirement communities called me and asked why we were doing that, saying that we should just let those neighborhoods take care of their own problems,” he said. “While many challenges in race relations remain, I find that residents in these neighborhoods are hopeful for a better future.”
These physical improvements are noteworthy, Harden said. However, when he came to Delray Beach, he encountered a lot of “Boca envy”.
“People were sometime ashamed to admit they had a Delray address,” he recalled. “In fact, one new subdivision just outside our city limits filed suit because they were given a Delray address. To see that totally reversed is a source of great satisfaction to me. Now Boca wants to be like Delray. In fact, as the Commission well knows, Delray is the envy of most of Palm Beach County as well as many other cities around the state.”
Just years ago, commissioners gave him a vote of no confidence over his handling of the city’s trash-hauling contract with Waste Management. The company may have overbilled and/or underpaid Delray Beach, and Harden has not provided conclusive answers to resolve the questions.
Harden knows in his line of work, the faces in city commission can change dramatically each year in the annual election and his job can be short lived.
But he continues to forge ahead, focusing on the city and leaving the politics to the sidelines.