County officials have made it clear that they want to transform Pasco from a bedroom community to a premier county. They envision a place where residents can live in affordable homes, work in nearby jobs that will pay competitive wages and also provide opportunities to keep graduates from leaving. They also want Pasco to be a player in the Tampa Bay area, with the clout and resources of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Retiring County Administrator John Gallagher began his job as the top boss more than 30 years ago, when Pasco was a patchwork of orange groves, cattle ranches and cheap retiree housing. He says he has taken the county from infancy to adolescence.
On Tuesday, county commissioners are expected to choose a new leader whose job it will be to take the county to the next level. The new administrator will be charged with managing the county's fifth-largest employer, with a $1.1 billion annual budget and 2,000 employees.
Commissioners have chosen four finalists who will be brought in on Friday for interviews. Here's a closer look at each.
Twenty years ago, Michele Baker had just accepted an offer to become Pasco County's emergency management director, then went on vacation. Then the no-name storm hit, flooding homes on the county's coast. Pasco officials called her in Atlanta. Could she come back?
Baker cut her leave short and jumped right in to coordinate the relief efforts.
"She got baptized by saltwater," joked former County Commissioner Michael Cox, who was then mayor of Port Richey.
Battle-hardened by working for Miami-Dade County during Hurricane Andrew, Baker received rave reviews from her new county. She went on to hold the position while Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne crisscrossed the state in 2004.
"I believe a large part of my success is due to my emergency management background," said Baker, 51, who earned a master's in business administration from Saint Leo University during her time with the county. "You have to make decisions very quickly."
Working her way up the ranks, she served as director of the engineering department. In 2007, County Administrator John Gallagher tapped Baker to be his chief assistant county administrator. One of the reasons he created the job was to groom a potential successor.
He quickly handed Baker the reins. She developed and oversaw Lean Efficient Accountable Pasco (LEAP), a program to cut costs amid declining revenues caused by an additional homestead exemption approved by voters. She assigned employee committees to identify opportunities for savings.
"We knew tough times were coming, but didn't know how tough they were going to be," Baker said, recalling the housing bust that led to the nation's economic meltdown. "What people didn't see was us leading through some of the most difficult times we had, working with the board and with staff to keep the ship on a steady course, but at the same time we were changing course."
In 2008, Baker played a major role in the Urban Land Institute's study of Pasco. The report detailed obstacles to development and recommended changes. Baker worked with staff and the public on an overhaul of the county's land development rules.
Baker is the only internal candidate who applied to replace Gallagher. Her strong resume was among the reasons cited by officials handling the hiring process for the dearth of candidates despite the national search by a recruiting firm. A total of 64 applied.
Former commissioners can't say enough good things about Baker, a Hudson grandmother who enjoys riding her Harley-Davidson around the county.
"Michele hit the ground running, and her feet haven't stopped," retired county commissioner Ann Hildebrand said. She called Baker "a straight shooter."
However, at least one current commissioner doesn't think she's the best pick for the job.
"I wanted somebody from outside of our county to run our county," Commissioner Henry Wilson Jr. said recently. He also said he was dissatisfied with all 10 semi-finalists the recruiter supplied.
Baker said she realizes some folks who weren't fans of Gallagher might see her as his clone.
"I am a very different person," she said. "To judge me based on my current role and responsibilities as the chief assistant is not seeing what my true potential is."
Tomas 'Tommy' Gonzalez
Tomas "Tommy" Gonzalez swears he hasn't cussed since 2000. That's when his wife gave birth to twin boys, who died after only one day.
Gonzalez said the deaths prompted him to make changes in his life and set a better example for his future children. He now has two sons, ages 9 and 11.
"My kids are my priority," he said.
Even while balancing family life, Gonzalez managed to become one of the highest paid public employees in Texas. His total compensation package is $450,000 as the city manager of Irving, a suburb northwest of Dallas and former home to the Dallas Cowboys.
Gonzalez, 46, was one of six children born to a working class family in east Lubbock, Texas. He played quarterback for his high school football team and went on to win an athletic scholarship to Eastern New Mexico University, from where he graduated in 1990. While he was in high school, a coach's wife who was a city secretary encouraged Gonzalez to pursue a career in city management.
He took her advice to heart. When he graduated, he got a job with the city of Lubbock as the supervisor of a graffiti removal crew. He held a variety of jobs with the city. When the city manager asked him what he wanted to do, Gonzalez told him he wanted his job.
His boss told him to get a master's degree in public administration. He earned one in 1995 from Texas Tech.
Gonzalez spent 16 months as city manager of Harlingen, Texas, then in 2004 spent eight months as an assistant city manager in Dallas before taking his current job in Irving in 2006.
While in Irving, his city won several awards, including the 2012 Malcolm Baldridge Award, a national program named after a former U.S. Commerce secretary that recognizes efficiency and quality for businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Gonzalez, a black belt in an efficiency program called Lean Six Sigma, cited his city's top bond rating, its savings of $44 million a year through streamlining processes, staff reduction through attrition and the ability to continue giving employee raises during the recession as evidence of his effectiveness.
"I've gotten results," he said. Gonzalez also credits his family with making him a better leader.
"Anybody can be a good manager, but you have to be able to inspire and motivate," he said. "I didn't learn that by playing football. I learned that by having kids. I want them to be better than me."
Despite his accolades, Gonzalez, whose contract with Irving expired this month but who was allowed to stay until October, has also found himself at the center of controversy.
A lawsuit filed against the city by the developer of an entertainment complex alleged that Gonzalez solicited and accepted tickets to sporting events. Gonzalez was cleared after an investigation by the district attorney of Dallas.
"After reviewing the instances and the background information we have found there were no violations of the city employee ethics policy," wrote Thomas Spink, the city's deputy mayor pro tem.
Tickets to a Texas Rangers game were legit because the event was sponsored by the area's economic development council. Also, Gonzalez didn't solicit or accept tickets to Sea World offered by an employee of the city convention and visitors bureau "as a courtesy." And, the letter pointed out, Gonzalez already qualified for free admission to Sea World because he served in the Army Reserves and the park provides free tickets to military veterans and their families.
Tickets accepted for events at the American Airlines Center were for underprivileged children involved in a YMCA program and "not for your personal use" but to act as a chaperone.
The lawsuit, Spink wrote to Gonzalez, was brought by a company that was upset "because of a fiscally conservative recommendation you made by protecting the city's interest."
Gonzalez said if hired in Pasco, he would abide by the county's policy banning all gifts of value.
He said he threw his hat in the Pasco ring after being solicited by a recruiter. He also is looking for other opportunities and was among those interviewed for the top job at Tampa Bay Water. He said he likes the Tampa Bay area because it's a good place to raise kids. He knows that Pasco, which paid Gallagher $180,000 a year, probably won't pay as much as Irving.
"I want to continue being challenged with my kids in mind," he said. "We want them to see different parts of America, too."
Eric Johnson wants to be forgiven for being a bit guarded when questioned for this story.
Two of his competitors are actively involved in job searches and the other is a current employee who can likely stay put if she doesn't get the job, he said.
"I have the most to lose," explains Johnson, 56, who currently serves as director of strategic planning for Hillsborough County and has served as an assistant county administrator. He has not applied for any other currently open position, though he has been named to short lists or interviewed for administrator jobs in Seminole and Sarasota counties.
"I don't apply for more than one position at a time," Johnson said.
Except for a one-year stint as a consultant, Johnson has worked in some form of government since 1993.
He graduated from the University of Florida in 1978 with a degree in economics and earned a master's in public administration from the University of South Florida in 2001.
His primary background is as an economist. After graduation from UF he worked for the U.S. Department of Commerce. He got involved in his homeowners association in Virginia and decided he wanted to be in local government. He returned to his home state in 1985 and then took a job as a budget analyst with the city of Gainesville. In 1986 he took the same job in Hillsborough County.
In 1989, he was promoted to budget manager and in 1993 became Hillsborough's budget director.
During that time, Hillsborough became the first county to adopt two-year spending plans. He also linked the County Commission's strategic plan to department's budgets.
Johnson also helped develop Hillsborough's code of ethics and has critiqued more than 200 budgets as part of a peer review program for more than 25 years.
He recently has overseen the county's efforts to get more involved in social media to determine what residents' priorities are in budgeting.
Johnson's tenure was quiet except for 2009 when Hillsborough commissioners demoted him and another official from assistant administrator jobs in order rescind a 10 percent pay raise given by then-County Administrator Pat Bean.
Amid countywide layoffs and pay cuts, Bean gave raises ranging from 7 to 17 percent to her six top deputies. She justified them with job consolidations and the elimination of positions, which she said saved the county $700,000. She said Johnson's appointment to an administrator job brought responsibilities that merited a 10 percent increase.
Bean was fired in 2010, but Johnson remained with the county.
"I love the Tampa Bay area," said Johnson, an Eagle Scout who enjoys backpacking and kayaking. "I've been working toward becoming a county administrator for a long time."
Johnson, who lives in northwest Hillsborough, said if chosen as Pasco's top administrator he would use his experience to help continue the momentum began by Gallagher's administration.
"I'm excited about being part of Pasco's future success — building on what has already been accomplished," he said.
Johnson said Pasco has definite advantages in luring economic development, primarily its available land.
"In addressing any barriers to job creation, the key there is you can build your economy and then you solve some of the demand for services and generate income for government," he said, adding that a stronger economy also helps nonprofit agencies.
Johnson said all the candidates bring different perspectives.
"In the end it all comes down to chemistry," he said. "Who do you think you'll feel comfortable working with? Different people have different personalities."
A native of Hagerstown, Md., Randy Oliver said he has never been afraid of a challenge.
Among his first was being a walk-on for the Clemson University Tiger football team in 1968.
He was lined up against Wayne Mass, a tackle who ended up being a fourth-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears.
"That ended my football career," said Oliver, 62.
Oliver graduated from Clemson in 1972 and earned a master's in business administration from Frostburg State College in Massachusetts. He received an engineering degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He is both a certified public accountant and a professional engineer.
His first job was serving from 1980 to 1984 as a consultant in Washington, D.C., for the company that became Price Waterhouse Coopers.
In 1984, he moved to Richmond, Va. and worked for the city's redevelopment and housing authority as its director of program support.
He discovered that he liked working on the local level.
"I like being able to lead a staff and get things done and benefit the people of a community," he said. "A CEO of a car company makes a lot of cars, but you don't touch the lives or have the diversity of service that you do in government."
An avid tennis player, Oliver moved to Florida in 1988 where he worked until 1996 in assistant managerial jobs in Lee and Polk counties.
From there he went to Augusta, Ga., where he oversaw the consolidation of all city and county services for three years. He served stints of a few years in Greenville, S.C. as city manager and then in Peoria, Ill. In Greenville, he oversaw the building of a large parking garage, helped an expo center emerge from bankruptcy and oversaw the design and construction of a stainless steel pedestrian bridge that became the focal point of a local park.
Bond ratings in both cities also improved.
Oliver went to Surprise, Ariz. to serve as city manager from 2008 to 2010. There he worked with John Hagen, who was at the time city economic development director. Hagen was hired in 2009 as president of Pasco County's Economic Development Council.
He worked with Hagen to turn the old city hall into a business incubator called the Techcelerator.
"Surprise was a bedroom community of Phoenix," Oliver said. "Our goal was to bring business owners out of the traffic of Phoenix."
In 2010, Oliver returned to Florida after he was named Escambia County's administrator.
But the Great Recession had hit hard, along with the BP oil spill.
Oliver had to cut the budget by $15.2 million and reduce staff. He also crafted legislation to dole out the fine money paid by BP as a result of the oil spill.
He was fired in 2012 by a 3-2 vote. Since then, he has worked as a consultant to local governments.
He is currently a finalist for the Alachua County administrator job.
Oliver said if chosen for Pasco, he wants to help the county create an identity to give it a sense of place, something Pasco's planning director has mentioned frequently.
"Governments don't typically create an image for themselves," he said. For example, New York is known as the Big Apple. Part of northern California is Silicon Valley.
"Pasco needs to create its own identity brand," he said. "It doesn't need to mimic someone else. That won't work."
He said he still views Pasco as a bedroom community for Tampa. But he thinks he is the person to help change that.
"The natural resources are there," he said. "The only way the Tampa Bay area can expand is to Pasco County. The key is to do it right. And you've got one chance to do it right."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to these reports.