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John Romano: Pinellas administrator LaSala's legacy? Good hire, good fire

Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala addresses the media after being terminated by a unanimous vote by the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners at the beginning of Tuesday’s regular public meeting in Clearwater.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala addresses the media after being terminated by a unanimous vote by the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners at the beginning of Tuesday’s regular public meeting in Clearwater.

Do not be misled by the abruptness of Bob LaSala's firing this week.

Do not read too much into the unanimous vote of Pinellas commissioners to terminate their county administrator, and do not infer anything from the lack of debate.

If not inevitable, this ending was entirely predictable.

For it is probably fair to say that LaSala was clearly the wrong option in 2014 for some of the same reasons he was the perfect choice in 2009.

"When he first came to us, he was needed to put out fires and bring some organization and stability to the county and, oh by the way, steer us through a historic recession,'' said Commissioner Ken Welch. "And, for the most part, the average person in Pinellas did not see the impact of all the cuts that had to be made.

"Maybe you noticed the grass was growing a little higher at Fort De Soto Park or something like that, but he did an excellent job of running the county during that period. It's just that some folks have different skill sets. Bob was good with change management, with crisis management. Today we need someone with other skills.''

As bureaucrats go, LaSala was more fearsome than most. He was blunt. Occasionally gruff. Almost always uncompromising. And those were his strong points.

He was a guy who got things done, and so it was inevitable he would eventually rub elected officials the wrong way. At one point in his tenure, Welch asked LaSala to go back and watch video of a commission meeting to see that his aggressive demeanor toward one commissioner bordered on disrespectful.

He was not the man you hired when you were looking for someone to be a caretaker. Subordination was never going to be his thing.

Think of it this way:

Would St. Petersburg still be having the same debates about the Pier and Rays stadium if LaSala had been running the city the past four years?

You might not like every LaSala decision, but you had to admit he was never afraid to pursue or implement his plans.

"Everything has its time and its season,'' said Commissioner Janet Long. "I've shared this with Bob so I don't mind saying it aloud. He led the county through an incredibly tumultuous time with a steady hand and firm leadership. We needed him.

"But now we need someone with a more collaborative style. A more cohesive type of person. Right now we need someone new.''

It may not be a perfect analogy, but this is similar to what you see in the sports world. When a team is underperforming, they often bring in a tough guy to be the coach or manager. A guy to kick butt and establish a specific direction.

And when the tough guy's welcome is worn out, they will turn to a laid-back leader. Someone who can calm the waters and ease the tension.

No one understands this better than LaSala. He butted heads with elected leaders in Boca Raton in the 1990s, he was lauded and later lambasted at two stops in California and he had a longer-than-expected run here in Pinellas.

Not to mention, between two terminations and two suggested resignations, he has now walked away with nearly $1.3 million in severance, benefits and vacation pay in the last 25 years or so.

Yes, in retrospect, his firing may have been a little overdue here. But his reign was not a failure.

John Romano: Pinellas administrator LaSala's legacy? Good hire, good fire 04/16/14 [Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2014 6:38am]
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