County administrator pick touts, defends record
The man in line to become the next Mesa County administrator portrayed himself Monday as a budget-conscious manager and efficiency advocate who was the fall guy in the job he was fired from seven months ago.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Sentinel editorial board, Michael Freilinger touted his experience overseeing larger communities in Iowa and Florida and vowed that he “will more than earn” his salary in Mesa County should he be hired.
County commissioners have offered the county administrator job to the 50-year-old Freilinger, who spent the past three years serving as the Osceola County manager in Florida after working four years as the Polk County administrator in Iowa. Commissioner Janet Rowland said she expects Freilinger to decide on the job by the end of the week.
The offer has raised some eyebrows because the Osceola County Commission, in a split decision, terminated Freilinger in April over concerns about two inmate escapes from the county jail and low employee morale. In Osceola County, the commissioners, rather than the sheriff, run the jail.
Freilinger, who made $214,000 a year in Florida and received $300,000 in severance upon his firing, said the escapes put a lot of pressure on the County Commission to take action and “the only person they could fire was me.”
“The public demand for heads to roll rose to the level that the County Commission felt they had to make a decision,” he said.
Freilinger said one of the inmates was able to escape after removing the jail cell’s plumbing, something he said wouldn’t have happened if officers had properly searched the cell prior to the escape. He also said the jail was poorly designed, something he claimed he pointed out to commissioners shortly after he took the job.
Freilinger also chalked up his firing to turnover on the County Commission. He said of the five commissioners who were on the board that hired him, only one remained 18 months later following two elections.
“When you have that dramatic of a turnover ... you have a tendency to have a change of direction and (commissioners) put their own stamp of approval” on the county, he said.
During his three years in Florida, Freilinger said, he trimmed $100 million off Osceola County’s $900 million budget, reduced the county’s work force by 20 percent and dealt with a nearly 40 percent dropoff in property tax revenue without a reduction in county services.
Freilinger played up the fact that he has a degree in business management, not public administration, and said his decision-making falls in line with those made by chief executive officers of private companies.
“I’m very good at budgeting and squeezing out inefficiencies,” he said.
Asked what attracted him to the Mesa County job, Freilinger said he doesn’t judge his success by the size of the county’s budget or the number of employees he oversees but by the “place where I can make the most significant difference.”
“I want to work with people I have a level of comfort with,” he said, adding that he believes he’s found that with the current County Commission.
Commissioners have offered Freilinger a $140,000 annual salary, a $15,000 boost over what former County Administrator Jon Peacock was making at the time of his resignation in July. That has upset some county residents and employees, particularly at a time when the county has laid off workers and frozen salaries due to revenue shortfalls.
Freilinger brushed off those concerns, saying county administrators’ pay should be commensurate with their responsibilities.
“I think I’m worth the money. I know I’m worth $240,000 because I made that before,” he said, referring to the $30,000 a year he received in deferred compensation on top of his annual salary in Florida.
He said the right administrator can save counties far more money than what that administrator makes.
“I will more than earn my salary,” Freilinger vowed. “And if I don’t, they can send me packing. It’s been done before for much more money.”