Last year during one of many attempts to solve the county's EMS troubles, Pinellas County commissioners debated two plans. One favored a private ambulance company. The other favored local firefighters. Loving neither idea, the commissioners asked for a Goldilocks option: a combination of the two.
But when the issue came up again, county Administrator Bob LaSala presented the board with only the first proposal. That episode and several others have landed LaSala with a lukewarm evaluation this year, the least enthusiastic of his four-year tenure as the county's chief executive.
LaSala took the $225,000 job in late 2008. During their Tuesday meeting, commissioners shelved the question of a salary increase, noting they would bring it up again when they discuss whether to give county employees raises later this year.
The annual survey is not exactly a subtle measuring instrument — it asks the commissioners to rank the administrator on a scale of one (needs attention) to four (excellent). Past evaluations have been glowing.
In 2011, commissioners rated LaSala as good to excellent in every category and last year he scored similarly in all but one area — policy facilitation. But this year his ratings dipped into the satisfactory to good level in half of the survey categories.
Commissioner Ken Welch, who relayed the anecdote about EMS, said it was a factor in his decision to rate LaSala as "needs attention" in the categories of mediation and facilitative leadership.
"We did butt heads on a policy," he said. But in the rest of his review, Welch gave LaSala's handling of the budget and communication with the board and staff top marks.
What brought down the administrator's overall score were low marks from Commissioners Norm Roche — who for the second year in a row, gave LaSala his worst grades — and Janet Long. Commissioners Karen Seel and Charlie Justice gave LaSala middling reviews.
Long said LaSala appeared somewhat surprised by the tepid response he got from the board.
"Every one of us likes to get A's in everything we do and so you look for ways to get better, that's all," LaSala said of his reaction.
Long wrote on her survey that because she has only worked with LaSala since her election last November, evaluating him is a bit unfair. The county administrator does a "better than average job" of running the county government, she wrote, but he "needs attention" in advocacy, media relations, and interpersonal communication. She underlined "in a way that demonstrates respect for the individual."
"Because I see a few areas where I think things could be better doesn't mean I see that as a great big fat negative," Long said. "I surely understand from his perspective why he feels that way, but I think that's my job to try to be objective."
The two have agreed to meet quarterly, she said, so that he isn't blindsided by future evaluations.
Justice, who is also a new member of the board, did not explain his thinking on the form.
"For the most part, their reaction was what I would expect it to be after only a few months," LaSala said. "I've had very good conversations with them both and I understand where they're coming from."
As was true last year, Commissioners John Morroni and Susan Latvala gave LaSala his highest ratings. Morroni marked the administrator "excellent" in every category, raving at the end of his review: "This is the first time I have given a perfect 'excellent' review. The reason is you deserve it!"
In contrast, Roche rated the administrator below satisfactory in six areas, including operational planning, budgeting, and mediation/negotiation, among others. He did not elaborate on the form. Asked to do so, he responded:
"It is inappropriate and unprofessional to air the specific elements of a county administrator's performance review via newsprint or the editorial pages."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.