NEW PORT RICHEY — After being snubbed by their top pick, Pasco County commissioners decided that the best person to be the new county administrator was already doing the job.
Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to offer the job to Michele Baker, currently the interim county administrator and the chief assistant administrator since 2007. Chairman Ted Schrader was directed to enter talks with Baker to draw up a contract.
"I'm honored," Baker, 51, said after the decision, agreed upon by all but Commissioner Henry Wilson Jr. "I will work quickly to earn their trust."
The discussion, which was heated at times, came after Tomas "Tommy" Gonzalez, the city manager in Irving, Texas, declined an offer made late last month to replace County Administrator John Gallagher, who retired last month after 31 years.
"Ms. Baker has given 190 percent," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who championed Baker early in the search and made the case for hiring her on Tuesday. "We need stability. We need an administrator that can take the bull by the horns and move forward."
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey expressed skepticism, saying that county staff had not been going to national conferences and bringing back "progressive" ideas.
"I don't think we need to be in any rush," she said of the search. She said she favored resuming talks with Gonzalez, whose primary reason for turning the job down was that he didn't get enough time to tour the area with his wife and two sons. Gonzalez told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday that he might reconsider if he were given that opportunity.
Schrader said he was ready to move on. He said Gonzalez, who spent three days in the county, had "plenty of time" to tour the area. He said his salary offers, another issue Gonzalez raised, were competitive, both across the region and state.
"Bringing him back I just don't' think is the appropriate thing to do," he said.
Wilson, who early on said he didn't think any of the more than 60 applicants were sufficiently qualified, said he wanted to start over.
Starkey agreed, which drew a sharp response from Mulieri.
"Why shouldn't she be offered the job?" she said. "She's a go-getter. She's a meeter and greeter. She has a great personality."
Commissioner Jack Mariano then expressed his support for Baker, describing her as "a phenomenal individual."
"When you can promote from within it's great," he said. "I don't think (Baker) is going to hold us back." He said the board could always replace her if commissioners are not pleased.
The county is dealing with tough budget issues, the result of continued fallout from the housing bust. Baker's institutional knowledge and experience are valuable, he said.
"We need to be able to focus on this all the way through," he said.
Baker finished second among four finalists who were interviewed. Commissioners named her interim county administrator while they entered talks with Gonzalez.
She joined the county as emergency management director right before the no-name storm of 1993. She cut a vacation short to return and lead recovery efforts. In 2004 she headed efforts to respond to hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne.
While working her way up the ranks, she served as director of the engineering department. In 2007, Gallagher tapped her to be his chief assistant county administrator. One of the reasons he created the job was to groom a potential successor.
He quickly handed Baker the reins. She developed and oversaw a program to cut costs amid declining revenues caused by an additional homestead exemption approved by voters. She assigned employee committees to identify opportunities for savings.
In 2008, Baker played a major role in the Urban Land Institute's study of Pasco. The report detailed obstacles to development and recommended changes. Baker worked with staff and the public on an overhaul of the county's land development rules.
Baker was the only internal candidate who applied to replace Gallagher. Her strong resume was among the reasons cited for the dearth of candidates despite the national search by a recruiting firm. A total of 64 applied.