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Ocala City Council rates Horst with mixed reviews; management style called innovative, dictatorial

By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
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Rocklin’s new city manager has been busy the last two years as city manager of Ocala, Fla. City council members there have mixed reviews of his short tenure in a city of 55,000. “The city of Ocala is losing a great city manager,” Ocala City Council President Kent Guinn told The Placer Herald. Ocala Councilman Daniel Owen said Horst is one of the most talented city managers in the country. Horst is humble about the praise and said his personal skills come from his parents. “It’s deeply appreciated and a little embarrassing and humbling,” Horst said. “But I don’t make everyone happy all the time.” He successfully negotiated better utility rates for Ocala customers, lowered the water and sewer impact fees and connection fees, encouraged infill redevelopment projects and lured hiring companies to move to Ocala. “When I got (in Ocala) there were five years of audit findings and they never did anything about it,” Horst said. That’s when Horst took over as Finance Director for about nine months. At the city level, he restructured departments, reduced the cost of the city’s fleet of cars, instituted pension reform for city workers and stepped up the city’s own bank statement reconciliation process to strengthen the city’s financial reporting.   Previously, he served as city manager of South Jordan in Utah, population 54,000, for nearly nine years. His 20-year public service career also includes three other city manager assignments in cities in Utah and Florida. Horst holds two master degrees, one from Brigham Young University and one from Troy State University and is a credentialed city manager by the International City/County Management Association. Horst has specific experience in redevelopment and economic development. He was a direct contributor to the drafting of the Utah Redevelopment Law. Similar to Rocklin, South Jordan was ranked in the top 100 cities to live in by Money Magazine, ranking 18th in the nation. Ocala Councilman John Priester told The Placer Herald that Horst is “dictatorial” in his management style, which has been a problem for governance. “I decided to run because the city was in turmoil with him in office,” Priester said. “There was dissension throughout the ranks and morale issues throughout the city. I had people coming to me hand over fist.” Horst said that view is only shared by Priester. “He’s only been a council member for one year,” Horst said. “ At the time, there were some tough decisions being made and department issues not associated with the economy.” Horst explains squashing controversy in the city did not come without criticism. Horst said getting along with his staff is a priority for Rocklin. “One of the things I missed the most about the interviewing opportunity was not being able to meet and get to know the employees. It wasn’t a part of the process,” Horst said. “I’m going to try to spend a lot of time with them.” Priester and Ocala Councilwoman Mary Sue Rich have accused Horst of not hiring minorities for upper management  positions in the city, pointing to the city’s African American finance director who Horst replaced. “I have hired minorities,” Horst said. “A black female was promoted to department head of human resources ... the first in the city’s history.” Eugene Poole, president of the Florida Voter’s League, met with Horst and a representative from the local NAACP to discuss race issues with the city and his predecessor and found Horst accommodating. “He’s redeemed himself,” Poole told The Placer Herald. “Before he came, minorities were not heard of. We recommended very strongly that he made an effort to improve that.” Priester accused Horst of adding an unnecessary number of advisers to the city creating a “cabinet” of officers including a deputy city manager, chief of staff and several assistant city managers. “Before he took office, we operated with two. He came in and brought in about six,” Priester said. “They all got substantial pay. Some were directors and they got a bump of several thousand dollars in pay increase. You better hope he doesn’t do that to ya’ll in these economic times. You wonder where the money is coming from.” Horst said even though Rocklin and Ocala are the same population, Ocala has an airport and utility that required more supervision. “I look forward actually to just working directly with the department heads in Rocklin,” Horst said. “I don’t think we need a hierarchy structure. South Jordan mirrors Rocklin more in structure with about 250 employees.” Ocala has 942 employees, Rocklin 235. Horst has been accused of not getting the council’s buy-in. “He would do things without the council’s approval,” Priester said. Priester points to an unauthorized out-of-state trip to Utah when Horst took workers to visit a call center he set up at his previous city. Horst said the trip was proper. “If you work outside of policy, you shouldn’t do that, but if it’s within budget, in the policy and the mission statement of the city then we move it forward,” Horst said. Priester said Horst’s role in euthanizing ducks in Ocala’s city parks was questionable. “It was Rick’s idea and the park director agreed to have them euthanized,” Preister said. “We questioned and chose to go to outside sources. We found some within the local area that had a shelter for animals.” Horst said it was USDA policy to euthanize the ducks and he was just following the direction of the city council, who changed their minds.   “The parks department opened up a contact with the USDA to pick up the ducks and they chose to euthanize them,” Horst said. “When we had a local advocate that raised issue with it, the council approved the contract, then said they weren’t going to do it anymore.” Ocala Councilwoman Suzy Heinbockel doesn’t think Horst ever overstepped his authority. “I have nothing but good things to say about Mr. Horst,” Heinbockel said. “Y’all are a lucky community and we’ll take him back anytime.” Rocklin City Councilman Scott Yuill said Rocklin leaders saw potential in Horst during the interview process and he stood above the rest. “Rick was the unanimous choice of the city council,” Yuill said. “The entire city council was impressed with Rick’s depth of experience, his demeanor, and his commitment to Rocklin. Rick has a  strong background in economic development, which was a particular importance to the city council.” Horst is married to Cynthia and has children and grandchildren living in Florida and Utah.