Brooksville has had a long relationship with local businessman Dr. Dennis Wilfong, but his honorary title was removed during the City Council meeting on Oct. 15, 2018. In 2009, then-mayor Joe Bernardini appointed Dr. Wilfong as the City’s Ambassador of Commerce on the recommendation of the previous City Attorney and City Manager.
At the time, it was just a title to show what Dr. Wilfong would be doing as a volunteer, Bernardini said, and to give more weight as he promoted Brooksville overseas. But Brooksville was also losing businesses downtown, so Bernardini felt Dr. Wilfong could help with that too. He added “and Employment” to Wilfong’s courtesy title. Over time, Dr. Wilfong was given an office and a designated parking space.
While Bernardini was not aware of any formal reports or presentations he made to the city, Dr. Wilfong has been successful in his role. The Hernando BOCC honored him with a resolution in 2015, citing his professional credentials. The commissioners noted that he was known for both employment and charitable contributions.
Dr. Wilfong founded Innovative Technology, Inc., a world class manufacturing firm headquartered in Hernando County that manufactured specialized electronics. He created the revolutionary technology of Transient Voltage Surge Suppression (TVSS). Innovative Technology grew into a multi-million dollar company providing products across the United States and 38 countries before being sold in 1997.
Vice Mayor Robert Battista mentioned two businesses that came or stayed with Dr. Wilfong’s assistance: Flagstone Pavers and Alumi-Guard, and said he was aware Dr. Wilfong has been working to bring another company that would positively impact the county.
With a goal to “move the city forward,” Mayor Betty Erhard stated her intention was not to eliminate the work he was doing. In fact, she hoped he would continue his efforts. She merely did not see the need for a title for any volunteer position. It’s a title that is unique to Brooksville.
Council member Bill Kemmerer was concerned about the impact removing the title would have on Dr. Wilfong, and whether he was still even interested in or actively promoting the city. According to City Manager Mark Kutney, Dr. Wilfong was informed the item was on the agenda and responded that he understood.
Recognizing and appreciating someone’s efforts, whether in a paid or volunteer position, is important. Kemmerer acknowledged that internal issues (replacing the City Manager, Attorney and the Fire Chief) have been the council’s concern for the last 12-18 months, but city development needs to become a priority again.
“The man has proven his worth to us a number of times. I don’t think the title hurts us in any way or dissuades anyone else from trying to bring business into town,” Kemmerer said.
Erhard responded, “How many volunteers do you give titles to?” There are many individuals who volunteer their time and efforts for the city, and they go unnoticed, receiving no (or not enough) accolades for the work they do, Erhard said. She voiced the opinion that having a designated person with the title of Ambassador of Commerce and Employment dissuades others from promoting the city.
Kemmerer and Erhard agreed that it appears that no one has reached out to Dr. Wilfong recently. Kemmerer suggested a meeting with him to discuss plans to make his activities more visible. “There could be things he’s doing that we don’t know about.”
“Unfortunately, we’ve taken advantage of volunteers before,” said Bernardini, citing the removal of Jim Brooks from the Parks and Recreation Board after 30 years and replacing him.
Council member Brent Young, who admitted he did not know Dr. Wilfong’s position or his accomplishments, expected him to at least write a response to the council about the change.
Battista stated that as a giving person, Dr. Wilfong did not need the title. He would have promoted the city without all of that. Several years ago, an economic development program was started, including the Main Street project, and Duane Chichester was hired. It couldn’t be maintained financially. Chichester was let go, and the City Manager’s contract was not renewed. Dr. Wilfong continued to quietly work on the city’s behalf.
Battista felt that putting the council’s decision in a resolution was unnecessary. It was a mayor’s appointment with no resolution to begin with, so removing the title should be as easy as the mayor making that pronouncement as well, he said.
The City Attorney disagreed, “Under our charter the mayor has certain authority, and that’s really not one of them. There isn’t anything in the charter that gives the mayor the authority to appoint something like that.” It was possible, she said, that the charter has changed since then if the City Attorney at the time said it was acceptable.
“It was just a title,” Bernardini said. Bernardini remarked that it was a title that morphed into a parking space, an office, and a self-appointed assistant, Ms. Michael Heard. He explained that Dr. Wilfong’s work for the county and the city made the title seem logical at the time.
There was no change to the charter, Bernardini said. It was just the way it was done. And because it was done under the previous City Attorney and City Manager, Bernardini followed their advice.
“We have a new City Manager and a new City Attorney. We need to go forward,” Erhard said. Members of the audience applauded this.
Bernardini recommended abolishing the position for now, then giving the City Manager the opportunity to create a more formal description for the position with guidelines and reports from the individual who takes on that role and he hopes Dr. Wilfong will continue as ambassador for the City.
The motion passed with a vote of 3-2. It is possible that this will be revisited in an upcoming council meeting.