Bill Mahan, Franklin County’s extension agent for the past 20 years, was transferred to Panama City last week, with a permanent replacement expected to be hired within the next four to six months.
“It is a personnel issue, and that’s all I can share at this time,” said Pete Vergot, northwest district extension director for University of Florida IFAS Extension, in a telephone interview Monday.
Vergot said Mahan was transferred to the Bay County extension office as of Oct. 29, with a temporary team of extension agent staffers, led by interim county director Shelly Swenson, now handling his duties.
“We work with the board (of county commissioners) on those decisions but it was a personnel decision that was made,” said Vergot. “We hope to continue the extension program, and we know there are issues that extension can assist.
“We’ll be doing some listening sessions on the most important needs,” he said. “We know there’s some expectation among shellfish workers and the seafood industry, so those are most likely the high priorities.”
Swenson lives in Wakulla County, where she handles family and consumer sciences and an expanded food and nutrition education program and is a 4-H Agent.
Vergot briefed the county commission on his decision at Tuesday morning’s meeting, and was questioned very little about what had happened with Mahan.
The only person to speak out was the Rev. John Sink, wearing a hat touting the century-old land grant system that gave rise to the network of extension agents throughout rural areas in the country.
Sink said he was “appalled” that the University of Florida had reassigned Mahan. “He focused on our seafood industry which is the lifeblood of this county,” he said. “I’ve been in the land grant system all my life. I’m really disappointed at the university being able to do this.”
The county commissioners voted unanimously to send Mahan a thank-you for his years of service to the county, dating back to 1993.
Vergot shared a packet with commissioners that indicated the University of Florida, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, spend about $142,000 annually on the county extension office, including about $99,000 for agent salary and benefits, and another $43,000 for administrative support.
The county kicks in another $68,000 per year, most of it for support staff and for the office space.
“The board of county commissioners will have a big input,” said Vergot. “They are a substantial partner for the position.”
Vergot said that with several ongoing research projects on the seafood industry, with involvement from University of Florida faculty Karl Havens, Steve Otwell and several others, the university has been actively involved in the county.
But, he said, there’s more that needs to be done, and listening sessions in December should help the future of the county program take shape.
“Right now the faculty that are there are going to be talking to clientele preparing for those,” Vergot said. “We’re looking at what we can do in the short-term and then developing long-term goals and long-term plans.”
He said it could be at least March or April before a permanent replacement is on board. “We hope we would continue with the team with Gulf and Wakulla County people to continue to provide all that extension has to offer to the area,” Vergot said.
A draft of the job description outlines the job’s duties and responsibilities. It notes that a master’s degree is required, a PhD is preferred, and the degree must be from an accredited college or university.
It said degrees considered are of marine policy, coastal management, marine recreation, resource development, commercial fisheries, aquaculture, marine biology, resource economics or other related disciplines. Extension programming experience in the commercial or recreational fisheries area is preferred.
“We hope to have a full role where we’re offering all of our extension programs to clientele so we can meet as many needs as possible,” said Vergot. “There are a huge number of needs. There are opportunities in family consumer science areas. We’ve been able to bring in program assistance in our family nutrition program and people though extending the volunteer base.”
He said possible program expansion includes adding the master naturalist and master gardener programs, and adding volunteers through 4H program. He said additional grant opportunities may be available, as well as greater outreach with the schools, such as in the case of Ray Carter in Gulf County.
“We hope that Franklin County can see the changes in extension programs in the very near future,” said Vergot. “We hope to have a bigger presence than people have seen in the past. We can’t do what we do without the county’s partnership in making this work.”