When New Englander Ed Mitchell showed up in West Palm Beach in 1986 for the first day of an internship, the future site of the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts was a field. The site of CityPlace was a blighted neighborhood.
A run-down, overcrowded building housed city government. The downtown waterfront was mostly deserted, with views of the Intracoastal Waterway blocked by rooming houses, a Holiday Inn and a blockhouse of a library.
“The stature of the city has improved,” said Mitchell, 51, who retires Wednesday after two decades at the city, 14 years of that as city administrator. Since he first arrived, he said, “I’ve seen West Palm Beach’s downtown turn from a place where there were one or two places for lunch and no place to live, into a 24-hour downtown.”
But “it’s always a work in progress,” he added. “If I had wheelbarrows of money, we’d be ahead.”
Mitchell will work for a private construction management and operations firm in the Tampa Bay area, where he made countless cross-state drives over the past four years to visit his girlfriend. In 2004 his wife, Cynthia Mitchell, comptroller for one of Palm Beach County’s largest private foundations, Quantum Foundation, died of breast cancer at 43.
Mitchell cites as his biggest accomplishment simply “keeping the city afloat” during the economic downturn that has seen West Palm Beach revenues drop 13 percent since 2006.
Former mayor Lois Frankel, who steered the city during both high times and recession, said Mitchell had to play “bad cop” when it came to the budget.
“He became a hardliner. I think it caused him to lose popularity with a lot of the employees and some of the unions. But somebody had to be the adult in the room,” Frankel, now a congresswoman, said Friday.
“We weren’t allowed to run a deficit,” Frankel said. “Ed had to make some tough administrative decisions.”
Mitchell’s advice to whomever replaces him: “Patience. Listening skills are very important. Be open to different ideas.”
He worked under four mayors: Nancy Graham, Joel Daves, Frankel and now Jeri Muoio. Right around the time he joined the city full time in 1993, its form of government changed from strong-commission to strong-mayor, requiring him to manage under some strong personalities.
“It really takes someone with a lot of fortitude and patience and very thick skin,” Frankel said.
“There are so many nitty-gritty parts of the job that people just absolutely take for granted,” she said of the administrator’s post. “It’s a 24-hour job. If somebody’s pipe breaks somewhere you can’t say, ‘Sorry, it’s Sunday.’ ”
Former mayor Graham called Mitchell “a very hard working, honest, and decent human being.” But to Graham, who pushed through the CityPlace revitalization project, Mitchell’s job changed after her tenure. “I encouraged innovative thinking and teamwork. Most of the mayors since I left have not done that,” she said in an email.
Frankel “ran a very different kind of ship and I think Ed pretty much did whatever she asked for to keep her happy and kept his head down, not taking any real chances or real strong positions,” Graham said.
Mitchell responded that “a lot has changed in West Palm Beach” since Graham left more than a decade ago. “My record stands for itself. I won’t criticize the mayors or Nancy. A lot has been successful in West Palm Beach during my tenure.”
Peter Robbins, a city spokesman for five years and now lead adviser of nuclear communications for NextEra Energy, stopped by city hall Friday when staff cut a cake for Mitchell.
Robbins said later that the most he ever clashed with Mitchell was over football; Mitchell’s over-achieving Patriots and Robbins’ ever-so-close Buffalo Bills.
“You’re running a city that size, there are going to be disagreements,” Robbins said. “Ed knew how to keep that professional and try to get the best outcome. He’s gifted at that.”
Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell (no relation) praised Ed Mitchell as someone who handled one crisis after another but never was rattled. The commissioner, frequently at odds with Mayor Frankel, said Ed Mitchell never got caught up in politics or unfairly worked against those who challenged the mayor. She said she and Ed Mitchell often disagreed “but I always respected his opinions.”
The resignations of Commissioners Ray Liberti in 2006 and Jim Exline in 2007 and their criminal convictions marked “a very dark day in the city’s history,” Ed Mitchell said. In 2006 both Mitchell and City Attorney Claudia McKenna testified before a grand jury as part of state prosecutors’ inquiry into allegations of “pay-to-play” conduct in the Frankel Administration.
And problems in West Palm Beach dogged Mitchell when he interviewed unsuccessfully for Sarasota County Manager in 2011. Commissioners there raised concerns over a Palm Beach Post investigation that revealed that Mitchell never passed along to WestPalm commissioners a critical staff evaluation of the multimillion-dollar OpenSky police radio system the city was installing. Mitchell insisted the report “was not buried.”
Mitchell allowed that sometimes the careful analysis of staff is undone by the caprice of a mayor or city commissioner. At times he secretly rooted for one candidate to be elected or not be but “once the elections are over, you live with the results,” he said. “Elected officials are your bosses.”
Mayor Muoio, who said she hopes to quickly find a replacement, lauded Mitchell for his years at the administration’s helm. “I have seen first-hand how this city has benefited from his experience, institutional knowledge and leadership,” she said.
Personal: Age: 51. Widower. Two teenaged children. Grew up in New England. Graduated from Saint Michael’s College, Vermont; masters in public administration from Suffolk University, Boston.
Professional: Came to West Palm Beach as an intern in 1986. Worked in Palm Beach Gardens administration five years. Returned in 1993 as an assistant city administrator, then advanced to administrator in 1999. President, Florida City and County Management Association, 2008.
Outside activities: Board member, Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Also has been a soccer coach. Member, St. Ann Catholic Church in West Palm Beach.
LETTERS ABOUT MITCHELL
Read letters about departing City Administrator Ed Mitchell from former mayors Nancy Graham and Lois Frankel