DADE CITY — Pasco commissioners looked at Tomas "Tommy" Gonzalez and saw a man who could elevate this bedroom community into a player in the Tampa Bay region.
As city manager of Irving, Texas, Gonzalez boasted of attracting 20,000 jobs since beefing up economic incentives. He has maintained the city's top bond rating and won the 2012 Malcolm Baldridge Award, a national honor that recognizes efficiency and quality for businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Commissioners voted Tuesday to select Gonzalez, 46, as the next county administrator, pending contract negotiations and a background check. He would succeed John Gallagher, who retires Friday after 31 years at the helm.
"I think it's a bold move," Commissioner Henry Wilson said. "This is how I think the county needed to go."
In the meantime, however, they turned to another finalist for the job — chief assistant county administrator Michele Baker — to serve as interim administrator until Gonzalez comes on board. Commissioners approved raising Baker's pay from $125,000 to $150,000 while she performs the extra duties. Baker could not be reached for comment after Tuesday's meeting.
The board had interviewed four finalists last week: Gonzalez, Baker, Hillsborough County director of strategic planning Eric Johnson and former Escambia County administrator Randy Oliver.
As the debate began Tuesday afternoon, it was quickly apparent that Gonzalez was the frontrunner.
"I'm a big fan of (Baker). I think she's bright, intelligent and a good leader," Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said. "But I think that the opportunity that we have with (Gonzalez) is extraordinary. He has a track record I just can't ignore. But I would not want to lose (Baker)."
Wilson echoed that sentiment and said Baker, 51, could learn a lot from working with Gonzalez.
"Gonzalez could bring us to the next level," Wilson said.
Commissioners also wanted someone who would stay for more than two years. Commissioner Jack Mariano noted that Gonzalez had said he wanted to move to a place where he could raise his children — a place to settle down for good.
"I really like his energy," Mariano said. "He's looking for something great to do."
Not everyone was sold on Gonzalez. Commissioner Pat Mulieri lobbied for Baker, praising her expertise and work ethic. Mulieri raised questions about Gonzalez's demeanor.
"I felt a certain arrogance," she said.
"I don't think we should bring in someone from the outside," she added.
Commissioner Ted Schrader was also skeptical, saying Gonzalez had not clearly articulated what he would do for Pasco County.
He also cautioned against comparisons between Irving, a close suburb of Dallas that attracts major employers, and Pasco County, which is a good 40-minute drive from Tampa. Irving gave Gonzalez a total compensation package of $450,000 — typical for that area of Texas, Schrader noted — while Gallagher earns $180,000 as Pasco's administrator.
Schrader also noted that Irving is breaking ground on a new library while Pasco is struggling to fund the ones it has.
"I sense that he's going to be coming to this board," Schrader said. "(He'll say) 'You want me to get this accomplished? I'm going to need financial incentives.' "
No problem, replied Starkey. As part of the Penny for Pasco sales tax that voters agreed to renew last fall, an estimated $45 million will be earmarked for economic development incentives over the next decade.
Starkey argued that a man like Gonzalez could do much to transform the perception of Pasco. Her grown son in New York hears of Pasco's reputation as not-so-friendly place to do business, she said.
"Having a new person at the top will send a message," she said. "We do have an image problem that we need to fix … I'm looking to be a model of efficiency and excellence in government."
"And we haven't done that?" asked Schrader.
"No," Starkey said.
Ultimately the commissioners coalesced around Gonzalez and instructed Schrader, the board chairman, to begin negotiations. The final contract would come back to the board for review and approval.
Gonzalez's contract in Irving ended this month, though officials there would allow him to stay through October if he wished.