NEW PORT RICHEY — The city manager of Irving, Texas, a former administrator from Escambia County, a longtime Hillsborough County government official and Pasco County's second-in-command will be invited to interview for the chance to be the county's next administrator.
"I'm comfortable with these candidates," said County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader after commissioners settled on Tomas Gonzalez of Texas, Charles Oliver of Pensacola, Eric Johnson of Hillsborough County and internal applicant Michele Baker.
Despite the final unanimous vote, not every commissioner was happy.
"I do not feel there is one person on this list who should be our next county administrator," Commissioner Henry Wilson Jr. said at Tuesday's meeting. Upon questioning, he made it clear that also included Baker.
"I wanted somebody from outside of our county to run our county," he said.
Other commissioners read off favorites. For the most part, the lists included overlapping names.
The four will be brought in for a bus tour and a reception on May 23, with interviews on May 24. Commissioners approved up to $1,000 per finalist for travel costs. They expect to make a final selection of the person who will replace County Administrator John Gallagher, who is retiring after about 30 years.
Discussion of the bus tour quickly erupted into an argument as commissioners bickered over who would get to accompany the finalists. County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder told commissioners that more than one of them attending would constitute a public meeting, and cited a Seminole County court decision involving school board members who all went on a bus tour.
When Schrader said he would represent the board, his statement drew criticism from Commissioners Pat Mulieri and Kathryn Starkey.
"That's not fair," said Mulieri. Starkey said that would give Schrader extra time to observe the candidates.
"I just don't think it would be a Sunshine Law violation," she said.
Schrader, who said later that he saw the tour as more of a service for the finalists than an interview, explained that he was a lifelong resident who knew the county's history and could answer any question.
Commissioner Jack Mariano suggested that perhaps staff should just attend, but Schrader insisted on a board member going.
"I'd let the board chairman go if I wasn't the chairman," he said after the meeting.
More about the finalists
The finalists bring varied experience to the table. Among their resume highlights:
• Tomas Gonzalez has served as city manager of Irving since 2006. Before that he spent a year as assistant city manager in Dallas and a year as assistant city manager of Harlingen, Texas. Gonzalez, who was also interviewed for the director's job at Tampa Bay Water, made headlines recently after allegations surfaced that he accepted sports tickets and gratuities from vendors doing business with the city of Irving. He denied any wrongdoing, and the deputy mayor sent Schrader a letter saying Gonzalez was cleared because the city had no policy against accepting gifts.
• Eric Johnson lists 26 years in local government experience, including jobs with Hillsborough County government dating to 1993. For the past two years he has served as the director of strategic planning and environmental resource permits. Before that he spent three years as assistant county administrator for management services and was the director of management and budget from 1993 to 2011.
• Charles Oliver was Escambia County administrator from 2010 to 2012. Before that he was city manager of Surprise, Ariz., the same city where John Hagen, now chief of Pasco's Economic Development Council, served as economic development director. He also worked as city manager for Peoria, Ill., for five years and city manager for Greenville, S.C. for three years.
• Michele Baker has served as Pasco's chief deputy assistant county administrator since 2007. Before that, she spent two years as program administrator for the engineering department and was emergency management director from 1993 to 2005.
Every candidate except Gonzalez makes less than Gallagher's salary of $180,000. Gonzalez's compensation package totaled about $450,000, making him one of the highest paid government employees in Texas.