An era is ending.
The man who took over Pasco County's scandal-ridden county government more than 30 years ago will soon release his tight grip on power.
County Administrator John Gallagher told the Tampa Bay Times he will retire in late spring, giving county commissioners a transition period while they search for his successor.
Gallagher has been a leading figure in local government, transforming a once-rural county poised for exploding growth. He is one of the pioneers of the Suncoast Parkway. In recent years, he aggressively tried to shed the county's status as a bedroom community with few major industries.
"I have kind of viewed my tenure as taking the community through adolescence," said Gallagher, 65. "That's probably what I'm going to miss, all the excitement of Pasco County going into the next level. It's becoming more than a home for people."
City and county managers in Florida have an average tenure of less than seven years. Hernando has had nine county administrators since 1990.
Gallagher will retire a few weeks after his 31st anniversary. He is the longest-serving county administrator in Florida history.
"People say to me, 'How were you able to survive that long?'" he said. "I really don't have an answer. The answer I kind of give is I think I'm extremely honest, I care and I've got a sense of humor."
He also loves to spar with developers to secure the best possible deal for the county on a major project.
Consider recent negotiations with the Porter family on a proposed tourism sports complex in Wesley Chapel intended to lure regional tournaments. His staff avoided him during the talks, saying he wasn't smiling much.
"I like doing that stuff, even though it makes me mad," he said. "I get nervous and I get upset. I like the challenge of winning. I think, in my opinion, I won that one."
Gallagher's departure is not wholly unexpected. Commissioners elected this year said they expected to choose a successor during their four-year term. Several veteran deputies recently retired, including budget chief and close confidant Mike Nurrenbrock. Ann Hildebrand, an ally on the commission for almost his entire tenure, just stepped down from her office.
Gallagher did not arrive in county government at its finest hour. Commission Chairman Barry Doyle was part of a three-vote majority to hire him in March 1982. A week into the job, two members of the state attorney's office visited Gallagher's office to tell him about a grand jury investigation.
Within six months, Doyle was indicted for accepting bribes from men who did business with the county.
"I got so mad," Gallagher said. "I wasn't really ready for that. It probably wouldn't have changed my mind, but I'd have been ready."
Part of the grand jury's work included a series of recommendations to clean up county government. Gallagher knew the county was headed in the right direction after commissioners gave him the power to fire staff without commission approval.
"We asked a lot of people to leave," he said. "We started rebuilding the organization."
Property Appraiser Mike Wells recently compared Pasco in Gallagher's initial years to "medieval times." The county lacked several key pieces of infrastructure in the early '80s: A water and sewer system. Parks. Libraries. A trash incinerator. A bigger jail. A road network to handle future growth. Gallagher oversaw the creation of all those things.
In the past few years, Pasco has landed planned expansions of T. Rowe Price and Raymond James Financial. New growth policies encourage dense development along the county's southern edge and could attract more high-paying jobs.
Gallagher lives in New Port Richey with his wife, Judy, an assistant principal at Gulf High School. Their children are grown. He isn't sure what he'll do after he retires. Perhaps some travelling. He won't run for public office. He also ruled out endorsing a candidate to replace him.
"That is totally a board decision," he said. "The board needs to select who they can work with."
A top candidate will likely be Gallagher's chief assistant for the last five years, Michele Baker.
"I don't want to give her any baggage," he said. "Everybody knows what she's like. She doesn't need my pluses or minuses that I've developed over the years."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.