ST. LEO — Four people, all local government veterans, tried to convince Pasco County's elected leaders Friday that they should be tapped to lead the county's transition from a bedroom community into a bustling jobs mecca.
Each spent an hour answering questions from commissioners, who are expected to decide Tuesday from among the finalists chosen from more than 60 who sought to succeed John Gallagher as Pasco's next county administrator. His last day is Friday.
Candidates met privately with each commissioner in the morning on the campus of Saint Leo University. At an afternoon session, which was open to the public, each finalist fielded the same set of questions. Topics included budgeting, economic development, ethics, tough decisions, providing services despite shrinking revenues and maintaining the quality of life.
Tomas "Tommy" Gonzalez touched on his experience as an officer in the Army Reserve and his six years as city manager in Irving, Texas, in which he has maintained the city's top bond rating and won a national award for efficiency.
As for luring jobs, Gonzalez called Irving a leader, adding that the city has attracted more than 20,000 jobs since he began beefing up incentives.
"What they wanted to know is that we were open for business and we really wanted them there," he said.
Gonzalez also said that 94 percent of the city's goals on its strategic plan have been met under his watch.
"This guy gets results," he said, referring to what the folks back home would say about him.
Randy Oliver, a former Escambia County administrator who has held a number of other top manager jobs, talked about his expertise in bricks and mortar.
"I have a solid understanding of all types of capital projects," said Oliver, who has degrees in construction and engineering. "Water, sewers, reservoirs."
He described himself as "a change agent" and said Pasco's chief challenges are addressing its infrastructure issues and creating a brand.
Eric Johnson, director of strategic planning in Hillsborough County government, focused on his budget expertise and his familiarity with the area.
"I know a lot about regional issues," said Johnson, who lives about 6 miles from the Pasco/Hillsborough line. He also mentioned his major role in the development of Hillsborough's strategic plan.
"It's very focused, perhaps more than yours, in terms of job creation," he said.
An economist, Johnson mentioned his 25 years of critiquing hundreds of other governments budgets as giving him an edge in finance.
"I've taught budget analysts and directors from around the country," he said.
A lieutenant of former Hillsborough administrator Pat Bean, Johnson said he and a colleague declined a 10 percent pay raise after public outcry over it, even though each was doing two jobs under a reorganization.
"From an ethical standpoint, I think we did the right thing," he said, adding that "it cost me a lot of money."
Michele Baker, Pasco's chief assistant county administrator and the only internal candidate, made it clear that while she shared her boss' core beliefs, the two differ when it comes to how things get done.
"He was a command-and-control leader," she said. "I am a collaborative leader. He likes to build things. I like to build people."
She cited her lead roles in developing efficiency programs, in a study that led that to an overhaul of land development rules and in helping hammer out deals with financial firms T. Rowe Price and Raymond James.
She also pledged to continue an active role on the Economic Development Council and to help create a more welcoming climate for those bringing jobs. The county has been criticized in the past for its slow permitting process.
"It will take some effort to overcome our bad reputation," she said.