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Focused on serving the public

Mar 29, 2016
by Laura Smith and Bobbie Stewart

This past December marked the 10th year since Flagler College graduated the first class from its Public Administration program. In that decade, Flagler diplomas have become a common sight among law enforcement, government and fire service offices throughout Northeast Florida, and especially St. Johns County.

The program, designed to help public service officials gain their Bachelor’s of Science degree and advance their careers, has graduated 450 students since its first graduation in 2005. The program currently has 125 students.  

Many are finding their way into top leadership positions like Howard “Skip” Cole, who was recently appointed commander of Central Investigations for the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office. That puts the 2010 Public Administration grad in charge of three investigative units: major crimes, special victims unit and special investigations (narcotics), as well as the evidence section.

“It’s a lot, but it’s what I have a passion for,” he said, noting he oversees 40 people.

Cole, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for 16 years, started out as a detective working major crimes and has worked his way up through numerous positions. As he moves into more of an administrative role, he said he’s thrilled to still be working in an area that is so important to him.  

“I see myself as a detective first and foremost,” he said. “That’s where I truly found my professional purpose in life. Working in homicides, cold cases and speaking for people who can no longer speak for themselves.”

Answering the call to civic duty

That’s a familiar sentiment shared among those in Public Administration positions — a passion for the work and a strong sense of civic duty to one’s community.

Public Administration graduate Ty Silcox, chief of the City of Fernandina Fire Department and a 30-year veteran of the fire service, considered retirement last year until a fire chief vacancy with the City of Fernandina Beach Fire Department opened up. The unit was grappling with unstable leadership, and as Silcox described it, a “revolving door” climate. He had previously had a successful 13-year career as fire chief for the Orange Park Fire Department and wasn’t looking for an organization struggling with issues. He began to question his interest in taking on something of that magnitude.

“I thought, ‘Well, that might be a good challenge for me, but do I really want to get into that?’” he said. “Your department you’re currently in runs so smooth … you’ve overcome those obstacles.”

But Silcox saw an opportunity to make something better and couldn’t resist. “Something kept pulling me to it,” he said, “I felt I had the skill sets to help move change forward.”

He interviewed for the position, was the top pick out of 28 candidates and started the new job last August. His first task was to implement lessons he learned from Flagler’s Public Administration Program, from which he graduated in 2008.

“My strategy has been to build relationships with personnel,” he said. “They had great ideas before I got here; I’ve just empowered them to do a lot of things, to test their own ideas to see if they work.”

Silcox is one of many of the Northeast Florida region’s senior fire department leadership who received a degree from Flagler’s Public Administration Program. In fact, there are a total of five fire officials in the five county region including, Sean Major, captain of the City of Palm Coast Fire Department; David Motes, deputy chief of operations of Clay County Fire Rescue; Mike Patterson, chief of Putnam County Fire and EMS; and Carl A. Shank, chief of St. Johns County Fire Rescue. Just a little further south in Central Florida, James E. White is chief of the Winter Park Fire Rescue Department.

“Our graduates represent the best evidence of the success of this program,” said Dr. Joe Saviak, Assistant Director and Associate Professor in the Public Administration Program. “We have graduates of this program in middle and senior management of all public safety agencies throughout the region. Our alumni are regularly recognized for their professional achievements and community contributions.”

The program has been a hot ticket since its inception, and not just for fire rescue personnel. Offering a course of study leading to a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Administration, the program is designed to meet the educational and career objectives of working professionals, especially those already employed in local governments and non-profit organizations.

Launching a program for public service

The Public Administration program was created in response to a conversation between Dr. William Proctor, former president of Flagler and today its chancellor, and St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar, who was then chief of police for the city of St. Augustine, in the early 1990s. Shoar approached Proctor and other college leadership with the idea of putting together a program for local police, fire and government workers to be able to earn a degree in public policy or public administration.

The idea fell dormant for several years before Proctor reached out again.

“He brought up this notion that we had discussed a number of years earlier, and the ball started rolling again,” Shoar said, noting the idea was to give working professionals access to a quality education and, at the same time, to provide a community service by strengthening the public sector workforce.

“I told him, ‘Dr. Proctor, if we put this program together, I can promise you one thing: you’ll never want for students. I believe there will be a tremendous amount of interest,’ ” Shoar said. “And that has proven to be true.”

Students advance through the program as part of a cohort, meaning they work with the same group of peers throughout the entire time. This model supports the needs of working professionals who may have been out of the classroom for some time, and it also provides valuable networking opportunities.

“I will never forget my first week at Flagler,” said Motes. “I began with the Administrative Law class, and that week at work I had union negotiations, a public employee discipline issue and a major policy issue. I came back to my professor and related that what I was learning I was already applying.”

Saviak explained that one of the valuable aspects of the program is its ability to offer students real world, real-time solutions that they can immediately utilize at work.

“They might learn something on a Monday night, and by Tuesday they are using that knowledge to solve a problem at their job,” he said. “What is learned in the classroom directly translates to the workplace.”

Leadership is a priority topic in this program. “An important focus of our program is to effectively prepare students for success in leadership positions,” said Dr. Don Berglund, director of the Public Administration Program.


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