By C. Ron Allen
As I prepared to leave the reception on the sixth floor at the Palm Beach County Governmental Center on Monday, I hugged Verdenia Baker and whispered, “Congratulations my Sister” in her ear.
One may think that was a rather presumptuous prediction that she would be tapped to succeed her boss as the county’s next administrator when he retires in August.
But after covering politics and government in this county for close to 30 years, I would want to think these elected officials were forward thinking to consider her hard work over the past 28 years and recognize she has prepared herself for this next chapter.
I am not naive to know that we are still in the South and the United States of America, where many still would deprive you of that well-earned opportunity to advance in your career because of the pigmentation of your skin.
I, like many people of color, am joyed knowing that finally, at least two people of color are given the opportunity to lead three top institutions in Palm Beach County. The third is already being led by a Black man.
Exactly one month ago, Ava L. Parker was selected as Palm Beach State College’s fifth president, becoming the first female and Black woman to lead the institution in its 82 year history. She replaced Dennis Gallon, who was at the helm for the past 18 years.
And two days later, the school district board members picked Robert Avossa, 43, currently the superintendent of Fulton County Schools in metro Atlanta, to be the next superintendent. Avosa is His-panic and began his career in Orange County.
I recall, as a newspaper re-porter for one of the local large dailies, wondering if I would one day see someone of color sitting in the county administrator’s seat on the dais, or even as the superintendent of schools. I am reminded of Bill Wilkins and Tony Smith, both highly qualified Black men, who served as the County’s second in command but would never – not under the commission we had during the late 1980s – be given the nod to be the top cheese. (I once got chastised after saying that so let me clarify: the majority of the com-missioners then were not as liberal and ready to “gamble on” a person of color to lead this county). Simply put, I never envisioned either, given the mindset of some of the decision makers then.
Nonetheless, kudos to Baker and to the commissioners for having the fortitude to choose one of their own after a yearlong search that attracted more than 80 applicants from across the country.
She has prepared herself well, having served as a budget analyst to impact fee coordinator and division director of the budget and finance department during her what, some sarcastically equated to a “28-year paid internship.” She has been the deputy county administrator since and was directly involved with virtually every major project and issue confronting the County during this period. Yet, despite glowing performance reviews and the recommendation of her boss, there were many, including county commissioners, who were not prepared to give her a crack at the job.
In the end, Mayor Shelley Vana, commissioners Mary Lou Berger, Priscilla Taylor and Paulette Burdick, who ranked her as their first choice, propelled her to become the winner. She was given the opportunity she deserved, not special consideration.
Baker has shown she has a deep knowledge of the County’s operations, its personnel and its culture. She communicates effectively with diverse members of the community, skill-fully handles controversial is-sues, effectively directs her staff, and makes correct decisions that withstand public scrutiny and the test of time.
Let’s not forget, she also has earned the respect and trust of her co-workers, peers and elected officials.
Now that she is in the big chair, Baker has until August to enjoy the honeymoon. Then she will need to improve the mass transit system, shake up the parks department and recruit sustainable business that will provide jobs to the county. Time will tell.
I guess I can now say by prematurely giving Baker that congratulatory hug, I am becoming cautiously optimistic that people of color are beginning to be judged on the content of their character and skills and not by the color of their skin.
- Ron Allen can be reached at email@example.com or (561) 665-0151.