Pinellas commissioners critical of administrator's abrasive manner

CLEARWATER — Although their reviews of his job performance were generally good, most of Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala's bosses say his personal style is responsible for high employee turnover and conflicts with other county governments.

This is not the first time LaSala's sometimes abrasive manner and difficulties with communications have been criticized. But concerns have reached such a high level that County Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel last week pulled a discussion of his job evaluations from Tuesday's agenda in "lieu of other options."

Seel conceded Saturday that "other options" include the possibility of firing LaSala. Seel said she plans to meet Monday with county attorneys to explore all choices.

"Anything's possible at this point," Seel said. "I don't know what all the options are at this point."

LaSala said Saturday he has looked at the evaluations and plans to discuss them individually with commissioners.

"I looked through the evaluations and respect both the positive and the constructive feedback . … I enjoy a good relationship with this board," LaSala said. "We will work together figuring out what is best for this county moving forward."

LaSala said he believes some of the issues stem from major changes in the county, including a tight budget, layoffs and other moves made to rein in spending and right-size the government.

"With that change, comes a whole raft of things including some pushback," LaSala said. "That's just a reality that we cope with and will continue to address it."

Seel said LaSala's sometimes caustic, bullying style has been an ongoing issue. But, she said, things reached a new level at last week's commission meeting during a discussion of an $8.5 million matching grant for health care that the county had failed to apply for.

"Tempers were flaring," Seel said. "You could noticeably watch the commissioners. They were very concerned about the communications flow and the accuracy of the communications."

Those tempers have also boiled behind closed doors. Last year, Seel said, LaSala reacted badly when she gave him a poor evaluation.

"It was a very angry conversation," Seel said.

Then, when she saw the concerns in the evaluations from the other commissioners, Seel said she thought it was time to act. So she pulled the evaluation from the agenda, although it's likely to come up during board discussions.

Commissioner Ken Welch, who gave the county administrator a generally middling evaluation overall, has long had concerns about LaSala's personal style.

"It's been an obvious problem. I really tried to give Bob the benefit of the doubt" when filling out the evaluation, he said. But recent events "have convinced me the problem is not being addressed."

Welch said his specific concerns ranged from the health care grant to disputes with local governments and agencies to high turnover of key, talented employees.

"That's a huge issue for the county to be out of the loop on that," Welch said, referring to the grant. As for the disputes, Welch said many were "avoidable conflicts. … It's just relationship after relationship."

LaSala, 64, who earns about $225,000 a year, has been county administrator since 2009, after Steve Spratt resigned following disclosure of a land deal between the county and then-Property Appraiser Jim Smith.

A native of Long Island, N.Y., LaSala worked for Pinellas County from 1979 to 1989. For most of that time, he was chief assistant county administrator under Fred Marquis. He then held positions in New York state, New Jersey and California. While he was praised for his work, LaSala also was criticized in some previous positions for friction with some developers and a police union.

His tenure since returning to Pinellas has been peppered with controversy. One particularly contentious issue has been with the emergency medical services system. LaSala has an especially touchy relationship with the county's fire chiefs and fire unions. Earlier this year, he told commissioners the chiefs weren't elected and had no say over the issue. When one chief got up to speak during a February commission workshop, LaSala interrupted and corrected comments he said were misstatements. When the chief tried to respond, LaSala got up and left the room, prompting Commissioner Norm Roche to apologize on his behalf.

Other commissioners have expressed concerns with LaSala's combative style and poor communication skills in past evaluations. But this year, the issue is a common thread through all six available evaluations.

John Morroni, who gave LaSala the best overall review of "excellent" in 21 categories and three "goods" (the second-highest rating), referred to the issue. After praising LaSala for his ability to deal with his seven bosses — "you are doing the best you can with this group" — Morroni added under the topic of mediation/negotiation, "sometimes, it doesn't come out as 'neutral' all the time."

Commissioner Susan Latvala, who has been a staunch supporter of LaSala, also gave him generally high marks but qualified her ranking with "does excellent job with this organization — not as well with community."

Some of the harshest words came from Janet Long, one of the newest commission members. Long declined Saturday to elaborate, saying she wanted to talk with LaSala before discussing her comments publicly.

Her summation of LaSala's style: "Bob must work on his demeanor during public meetings to insure respect and civility towards our citizens as well as the elected officials. … Again, outbursts from the dais and/or snarky remarks toward elected officials must be curtailed. More acknowledgement of the work done by staff would be appreciated."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450. Follow @ALindbergTimes on Twitter.

Pinellas commissioners critical of administrator's abrasive manner 04/12/14 [Last modified: Sunday, April 13, 2014 12:22am]

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