Fernandina Beach’s longtime utilities director retires
For the first time in almost 40 years, John Mandrick did not report to work on Monday. He was not inspecting plans, overseeing a project or budgeting or planning or performing any other of the myriad of duties that go into being the utilities director for the city of Fernandina Beach.
Instead, he could walk with his dog, Elvis, on the beach or take a hike or go kayaking. He could spend the day with his wife, Kristen, his three sons, and seven grandchildren. He could play bluegrass banjo or find escape in nature.
Mandrick, who has been the city’s utilities director since 1998, retired last week after working since he was 16 years old.
“It’s going to be different,” Mandrick said. Sitting outside the Utilities Department on his last day of work, he talked about the future as well as his career. “You go through all the realm of emotions. I have no plans right now to do any kind of engineering or consulting work. I’ll be engaged in things like volunteerism. I’m a Florida Master Naturalist certified through (the University of Florida). I might do some volunteer work for Fort Clinch or Talbot (Islands State Parks) or even Cumberland (Island). I’ve done hardcore engineering for 40 years. I think I’m ready for a change.”
Mandrick graduated from University of Western Michigan in Kalamazoo, Mich., with a degree in electrical engineering with a minor in mathematics. After college, he worked for McLouth Steel and the Western Michigan Electric Cooperative. From there, he went to work for Florida Public Utilities, where he was in charge of the electric, water and propane departments. He was working for FPU when he answered an ad in a trade magazine to work for the city of Fernandina Beach.
At the time, the city did not own its utilities, but Mandrick said then-city manager Bob Mearns “had vision” when he hired him. The general manager of city utilities at the time, Patrick Foster, laid out plans for building a water system and rebuilding the electric system in 1998, and Mandrick has seen those plans to fruition in what he calls “a very unique place.”
“There’s not one other place I can think of in the world that has heavy industry, tourism and residential people all living on a small land mass like Amelia Island, and for the most part, all the different parties get along pretty well,” he said. “Part of my work experience is two years at McLouth Steel, where we had ships come in with iron from Minnesota, coal from Pennsylvania and limestone from Ohio, and (we) melted it down in blast furnaces and made steel. I’ve operated 250-ton ladle cranes, electric arc furnaces, continuous casting machines – a variety of heaving equipment. My work experiences are rooted in heavy industry, so I have a huge heart for the paper mills on the island and some of the problems they face with being in a bedroom community. They are the meat and potatoes of this whole region. They need to be supported.”
The blue-collar experience at a steel mill is indicative of how Mandrick thinks and works. He calls himself “an old Mustang-style engineer,” preferring to get out in the field to sitting in front of a computer. “It’s a very old school method of engineering. It’s more looking at it as a trade or a craft, like an artist would look at their profession.”
His job title over the years at the city has included “deputy city manager,” and when the city found itself between city managers, he took over the position for six weeks. During that time, he did not find a calling to manage the city of Fernandina Beach, but rather told the City Commission, “I am not a politician and will not be political, and if they wanted a politician, they needed to get someone in there right away.”
Mandrick said that is the most difficult aspect of his career with the city – that it is a city, not a private business so he must play by much stricter rules.
“The hardest thing is trying to function like a business but under the governance of a government. Running an enterprise under the confines of the city is extremely difficult,” he said. “You are told to do your best but are limited on some things. What would normally take a few minutes turns into a few hours because of rules and regulations as a governmental unit. I won’t miss that. I am a classic ‘get it done’ guy. At the end of the day, that’s where the rubber meets the road.”
Which is not to say Mandrick cannot work within the city to create successful projects. Under his leadership, the city has built a huge solar power program, with solar panels at three sites, partially – and sometimes totally – powering the city’s water plant, wastewater systems and airport terminal. The solar projects began in 2010 and received no outside funding, but have been paid for by the city. The city built the projects because the staff in the Utilities Department completed the work in-house, designing the systems and installing the solar panels themselves. Mandrick simply says, “It is the right thing to do.”
“Change is always difficult for everyone, no matter what you’re proposing. There is a certain amount of fear and uncertainty. We managed to work through that and get it done,” Mandrick said. “There was no edict from the City Commission or the city manager’s office. There was no money granted the city, other than our own internal funding, to build all the solar panel systems. We helped ourselves. If more communities would do that, we would be a better place in our country.”
“John is a very competent, capable civil engineer, with a unique skill set,” said Michael Czymbor, who served as Fernandina Beach’s city manager from 2006 through 2012. He was serving the city when it expanded the wastewater system, which Mandrick oversaw. Czymbor said Mandrick designed a sludge press, part of the wastewater system, that was featured in trade publications. “He is creative and saved the city millions of dollars with his ingenuity. He is a problem solver, a ‘can-do’ guy.”
Undertaking such a large project without any outside consultants or contractors hasn’t been easy. Mandrick said it was possible due to a staff that is not afraid to take on new challenges. His staff, not projects, is his biggest source of pride in his career with the city.
“I am proud of all the staff that has participated in building different facilities for the city over the years, and how they have embraced different projects,” he said. “They are excited about building things that might be totally out of their comfort zone. Having water and wastewater employees build solar panel systems – that’s not their normal day-to-day activity, at all. But, never once did any of the staff refuse to want to participate. They were all very enthusiastic. It’s tough to leave them, but I feel like they are left in a good position.”
During his last week on the job, officials from the city of St. Augustine visited Fernandina Beach, and Mandrick showed them the solar projects he has built and volunteered to help St. Augustine – free of charge – develop its solar capabilities. It’s what he does – pitching in, doing what needs to be done to improve his corner of the world, and Fernandina Beach has reaped the rewards. But, true to his pragmatic nature, he doesn’t seek glory for his decades of work.
“I’m just glad I’m leaving the city in better condition than I found it,” he said.