Thursday, May 24, 2018
News Roundup

Pasco County government sees new generation of leadership

John Gallagher, the man at the top of Pasco County government for 30 years, is retiring in the spring. A major change, clearly. But it's only part of the story. The county's entire power structure is being transformed. This year alone saw the retirements of several high-profile members of Gallagher's administration, and others plan to leave in the coming years.

"It's a new organization," Gallagher said last month. "It's time for the organization to stand on its own."

Among the recent departures is Mike Nurrenbrock, the veteran budget chief and Gallagher's closest confidante. Dan Johnson, an assistant administrator who predated Gallagher, left in the fall. Anthony Lopinto retired as fire chief after 35 years in the department.

And that's just county staffers. Ann Hildebrand, first elected to the County Commission in 1984, stepped down in November. Pat Mulieri will end a 20-year commission tenure in two years.

Their replacements are part a culture change that includes a more businesslike approach to government and a reduced focus on top-down management. The person most responsible for the new attitude might be Michele Baker, Gallagher's chief assistant and a candidate to replace him. Her leadership style is more collaborative compared to Gallagher's tight grip on power.

"An organization can be successful because of a strong leader at the top," she said. The risk is, "once that leader leaves, then the organization falls apart."

Her goal is to create a culture where both managers and rank-and-file staffers support the county's mission. "We're not dependent on any one particular hand on the till," she said.

Baker pointed to growth management as an example of the shift. A watershed 2008 Urban Land Institute report criticized Pasco's policies as too byzantine and unpredictable. "Those same people that we need to bring their business growth here say we're hard to deal with," she said.

After longtime planner Sam Steffey retired in 2009, Richard Gehring brought a big-picture approach to the county's growth. Pasco revamped its land development code to make it simpler for staffers and developers. The goal is to reduce ambiguous guidelines that must be sorted out by top managers. More decisions made at lower levels should reduce project delays.

Another example? Faced with steep cuts, Elderly Nutrition staffers reached out to churches and other community groups to use their facilities for dining sites. Now, instead of renting space, all of the sites are in those locations or county buildings.

That change wasn't ordered by top-level administrators.

"They were empowered to make those improvements to their program," Baker said. "All we had to do was salute and say, 'Go forward.'"

Meantime, the search for Gallagher's successor is about to begin. Next month commissioners will hire a recruiting firm to conduct a national search. They hope to review semifinalists or finalists by early March.

At a recent meeting, Commissioner Jack Mariano praised the "new crop" of staffers who he said have positioned Pasco to attract major employers and provide more efficient service.

There are no shortage of new faces. Budget director Chris Dorsey came from Tennessee, where he was a budget chief and city manager of a small suburb. Heather Grimes took over as assistant county administrator overseeing departments such as information technology and facilities. She joined the county in 2004 and previously managed customer service. Suzanne Salichs, who brings 24 years of experience from Miami-Dade County government, is the new assistant county administrator for public services like parks, libraries and animal control.

They county began a new development program this year for employees interested in advancement. Supervisors are also getting more management skills, instead of relying only on technical skills related to their particular department.

"There's a changing of the guard, but we're not digging out of any holes," said Marc Bellas, who joined the county a year ago as personnel manager. "We're in a great position with a solid foundation."

Bellas said he hopes commissioners understand that "now is not the time to bring us back to the way we were." He compared the county administrator search to finding a replacement for Lopinto, the former fire chief.

"We were getting people at the end of their career, somewhere else in the country, who wanted to retire in Florida," he said. "That would be the fear, that you get somebody who's done what they've done forever."

Instead, the fire chief's job went to Scott Cassin, who had quickly risen through the ranks of Pasco Fire Rescue after working 22 years for the fire department in White River Township, Ind.

When Gallagher tapped Baker in 2007 for the chief assistant county administrator job, he sent her to a conference on the Sterling management system, which promotes a more businesslike approach to government. "Well, Michele came back and as I tell her, she got an intravenous (injection) during the night," he said. Bellas is also stepped in Sterling guidelines, and most new hires have some sort of background with the program.

Bellas said the model highlights strategies common to all high-performing organizations. Some examples: a strong reward and feedback program for workers, a long-term strategic plan and a focus on measuring how government affects its residents.

Bellas had the model in mind when the county redesigned its hiring process, shaving off nearly a third of the time and eliminating more than 20 steps. Most of the improvements, he said, came from tips and frustrations from current employees.

Gallagher said the emphasis on metrics allows department heads to justify their requests for extra workers or funding.

"That way, when you go to the board or you come to the county administrator and say you need more people, you've got facts instead of just saying, 'Well, you know, I really could use another guy,' " he said.

Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.

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