Having served in the public sector for more than 34 years, Frank Abbate’s professional career has been a combination of managing city and county affairs by combining his background in both human resources and labor and employment law. Abbate had served Brevard County as assistant county manager for public safety and support services before being named county manager in 2017. Before that, he served for 26 years as Brevard County’s human resources director. We caught up with Abbate and asked him some questions about his professional journey, his role as county manager and his goals for the future.
JR: Tell us about your professional journey. How did you get to where you are today?
FA: I was a political science major at S.U.N.Y. at Stony Brook, and I became a teaching assistant for constitutional law. I started really appreciating what I was doing, and I actually augmented that in my senior year by doing an internship in Washington D.C. for a semester. I worked for a congressman who was a representative on the Labor and Education Committee.
I ended up going to Dickinson Law School, Penn State University. While there, I worked for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and got involved in litigation with the City of Harrisburg. There was concern about adverse impact type of discrimination in the police department, so I was involved in what’s called the Systemic Enforcement Division. I graduated, went into private practice for a year and became assistant city solicitor. While there, I was giving a lot of advice to the personnel director because I was interested in labor and employment law. When he left, the mayor decided to combine those two positions, so I became the personnel director/labor attorney for the city. I stayed there from 1983 through the middle of 1989.
In the middle of 1989, I got a phone call out of the blue from Pete Wahl, assistant county administrator for Brevard. I thought it was a prank because I never heard of Brevard County. He asked me, “I know you work for city government. Would you be interested in considering working for a county government?” The rest kind of played out from there.
JR: What did you want to accomplish when you first got to Brevard County?
FA: When I got here, I had a vision of developing a robust employee development program, which we’ve since grown into a program of about 18 courses. Employees get certified, and it helps them for promotional opportunities within the organization. Back in 2006, we got involved with Stephen Covey’s three-day signature program, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and we offer that program because it’s really life-changing. It was personally life-changing for me, and it has been for a lot of employees.
JR: How’s the program doing today?
FA: We developed an executive leadership program to augment our employee development. We try to grow as much as we can internally, and we’ve put 300 plus employees through it. It’s an 18-month program that has expanded to include other organizations, whether it’s charter officers or municipalities. It helps us develop leadership throughout the county and the public sector and primarily within our own organization. It also provides great networking opportunities for employees to get to know people in other organizations.
JR: What’s the biggest difference between city and county government?
FA: County government has a broader array of services. When I initially came to Brevard County, it wasn’t that much of a transition because I came in as a human resources director, something I was very familiar with.
“I think we’re going to be world leaders in a lot of different areas. Between Blue Origin and Space X and what they’re doing from a government and commercial launch standpoint, it’s impressive.”
– Frank Abbate, Brevard County Manager
JR: You were in human resources for quite a while. What was the transition to county manager like?
FA: As a human resources director, I was already touching all the departments from the employment and labor relations aspect of things, so what encouraged me to want to pursue the county manager position was the executive leadership program we’ve created. I’ve gotten to know everyone and their strengths within our organization through it.
JR: What is the role of county manager?
FA: It’s to provide leadership in all aspects administratively of county government that are not specifically given by state statute to other charter officers, such as supervisor of elections or the sheriff or the tax collector or the clerk of courts. It’s the responsibility of the county manager to follow the policy direction of the Board of County Commissioners and ensure we execute what their policies are.
JR: What are your goals as county manager?
FA: I’ve continued to emphasize to all staff in terms of where we want to be is inclusiveness and being responsive… meaning you listen to what everyone has to say, and you’re responsive to them. You show that person, those individuals, those groups a degree of respect whether you agree with them or not, and that’s something my dad taught me very early in life. You gain trust and credibility from people when you do that, and I’ve seen that be extraordinarily successful.
Other priorities include addressing infrastructure, specifically in roads, and drainage. We put a lot of resources into that in 2017. We developed a five-year plan and committed to 55 miles a year in repaving. Also, the restoration of the Indian River Lagoon is critical… making sure we get resources and assistance from the state and federal government to augment what we’re trying to do. And then there’s employee compensation, which in Brevard County has been an issue for our firefighters and employees. We have certain revenue limitations, so we have to strike hard in all those areas with success to enable us to gain the trust of the community we’re serving. I think we’ve laid a pretty good foundation for that, and now the challenge is staying the course.
JR: How would you describe Brevard County?
FA: It’s like living in paradise. My whole family is here now, including my grandkids. Brevard provides things to me and my family that are extraordinarily important. We’re into water and fishing, and Brevard has provided that from the enjoyment of parks to water to going out on cruises at the port to everything that space and rocket launches offer. I couldn’t imagine a better place to raise a family.
JR: How’s Brevard doing as a county?
FA: I think it’s doing great. I see an extraordinarily promising future. If I say what’s one of the biggest challenges, it’s catching up on the infrastructure, and it’s delivering in a reasonable way when society as a whole has gotten to the point of wanting quick fixes. The best example is the Indian River Lagoon; it’s going to take time. It took us a long time to get where we are and to recognize what’s happening and to get to a better place, but I’m thoroughly convinced we’re going to get there.
JR: Where would you like to see Brevard County in 20 years?
FA: I think we’re going to be world leaders in a lot of different areas. Between Blue Origin and Space X and what they’re doing from a government and commercial launch standpoint, it’s impressive. I’m confident as a community we will augment that in terms of helping that happen. And couple that with the Port. It’s just phenomenal what’s happening there. So I think it’s an extraordinarily bright future for Brevard. We have enough growth happening that we’ll have the opportunity to do the right things to gain the trust of the citizens so we can make Brevard all it can be.