It's been over 20 years since Stockton Whitten last lived in Alachua County, but he still remembers the small-town feel of the area.

The Alachua County Commission voted on Tuesday to begin negotiating a contract with Whitten, who is now the top pick for the position of county manager after the previous favorite, James Bourey of Greenville, S.C., withdrew himself from consideration.

Whitten has been the deputy county manager of Brevard County since late last year, and was an assistant county manager for 12 years before that.

People usually associate Brevard County with the John F. Kennedy Space Center, Whitten said, but there's another side to the area.

“What people don't realize about Brevard is that we have a lot of agricultural land," he said. "A lot of our industry is agriculture." Whitten said he's dealt with both rural and urban issues.

The topics important to small communities vary from place to place, he said, so the only way to address them is to listen.

"A good leader is a good listener," he said.

People outside of population centers and county seats can often feel marginalized, he added, and need to be considered when setting county-wide policy.

"We've dealt with people just feeling like they're ignored and not part of the county as a whole. You have to be able to understand their point of view."

Transportation, infrastructure and jobs are three major issues Whitten said he's dealt with in rural areas.

He studied at the University of Florida in 1990, receiving a Master of Arts with a certificate in public administration. Commissioner Susan Baird raised concerns about how Whitten represented his degree, which he described as a Master of Public Administration, a degree that UF does not offer. However, Alachua County Human Resources Manager Kim Baldry said that both degrees are functionally equivalent, and Master of Public Administration was a valid shorthand way for Whitten to describe his qualifications.

The County Commission debated at Tuesday's meeting whether to adopt a "take-it-or-leave-it" approach to negotiating a contract with Whitten.  

Commissioner Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV took issue with amount of compensation the previous top candidate, Bourey, asked for in addition to his base salary.

"When we're going to give away the kitchen sink, I have some issues with that," he said.

The commission voted to offer Whitten the same contract that was offered to Bourey, a $160,000 base salary as part of a compensation package totaling $227,000.

Chestnut suggested that Whitten be given the chance to make a counteroffer, since the same opportunity was given to Bourey.

"You've got to give him the opportunity," he said. "What I don't want to happen is that this county be sued because we failed in our process to make it a fair process for all of the candidates."

Whitten said he hasn't really started communicating with the county over the details, but the job offer in Alachua County is his preferred choice for employment.

"It's an honor to be chosen," he said. "When I think of Alachua County, I think of nice towns and nice people."

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