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Pinellas commissioners fire County Administrator Bob LaSala by unanimous vote

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

CLEARWATER — With lightning speed, Pinellas County commissioners fired Bob LaSala on Tuesday in a unanimous vote that ended days of speculation about his future.

While commissioners have generally praised LaSala's handling of the financial difficulties the county has faced in the past few years, they also have criticized his personal style, blaming his sometimes abrasive personality for employee turnover and high-profile disputes with cities and community partners.

The decision Tuesday, made with no discussion on the advice of attorneys, took less than 10 minutes. In making the motion to fire LaSala, commissioner Ken Welch thanked him for his service but said it was time to part ways.

LaSala, clearly aware of the impending split, came prepared with remarks, which he read from the dais before leaving the meeting.

"Anytime you're addressing tough issues and you become the focal point of those issues, there can be some fallout," LaSala told reporters afterward. "I think the board and I decided it was best for the board and the county and myself to make a change."

LaSala, 64, said he accomplished many goals during his five years at the helm and believed he was leaving Pinellas in better financial shape. But, he conceded, the "accomplishments have not been made without controversy."

"Sometimes we make some mistakes and the accomplishments get overshadowed by the mistakes," he said, "but none of the things I did were ever for anything but the best interests of Pinellas County."

Commissioners have said LaSala, while knowledgeable and financially astute, generally lacks tact and has alienated employees as well as citizens and officials from the county's 24 cities. Those disputes have cost the county, they say, at a time when collaboration is needed.

Commissioner Janet Long said she was troubled by LaSala's apparent inability to deal with "land mines" that popped up in recent months, such as the controversy that erupted in the county's veteran services department after staffing reductions led to a claims backlog. Tension also increased between the county and hospitals who provide medical care for indigent residents.

The decision to fire him "without cause" entitles him to a severance of 20 weeks of pay and benefits, roughly $89,000. He also has about $40,000 in accrued sick and vacation time due him as of April 11, according to county records.

His contract also guarantees him 90 days' notice. Commission chairwoman Karen Seel said that during that time LaSala would answer to an interim administrator who has yet to be named. It's unclear what duties he would be given.

Assistant County Mark Woodard or former assistant county administrator Jake Stowers, who is working with the county on a temporary assignment, would be good options as interim leaders, Seel and Welch said.

Pinellas Suncoast fire Chief Bert Polk, head of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association, often tangled with LaSala over proposed changes to the county's emergency medical services system.

The administrator's firing, Polk said, "certainly creates an opportunity to move forward. Quite possibly, an obstacle to an open, transparent dialogue has been removed."

LaSala's five-year tenure was laced with controversy as he made major changes, including tens of millions of dollars in spending cuts and the eliminations of about 1,700 county positions. Over the years, commissioners asked him to rein in his aggressiveness. But things reached a climax last week during a heated discussion of why the county didn't apply for an $8.5 million matching grant for health care. But that was just one of many issues, commissioners said, that eroded their trust.

"I think Bob has done a yeoman's job taking us through very difficult economic times," Long said. "There's no question."

However, she said, "We have serious issues we need to address, we need a more collaborative style."

Welch agreed.

"At this point the board wants to focus more on collaborations and partnerships, the whole concept of '25 equals one' that's embedded in our strategic plan," he said. "We've had a series of past and current events that are really counter to that concept of partnerships, so the time was right to make a change in the county administrator position."

LaSala, a native of Long Island, N.Y., worked for Pinellas County from 1979 to 1989. For most of that time, he was chief assistant county administrator under Fred Marquis. After stints in New York state, New Jersey and California, he returned to Pinellas County in 2009.

He conceded after his firing that communication was a problem.

"I think we moved a little to fast on some things and didn't build the support necessary to move that fast," he said. "When you're making a lot of tough recommendations and tough decisions there's going to be a variety of reactions and one of those reactions is going to be push back."

Reaction to County Administrator Bob LaSala's termination

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos: "Bob LaSala and I go back to the 1970s. I know he always did his best not only to represent his board but the people of Pinellas County. ... Like any relationship, you have your ups and downs. I guess the board decided to go in a different direction."

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman: "I wish Mr. LaSala well and look forward to establishing a collaborative relationship with his successor."

Largo Mayor Pat Gerard, who is running for county commission in November: "The poor county staff has been through a lot of pain in three years. I feel for them. Here we go again. ... Everything's up in the air again."

Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel: "I just feel like our employees are maxed out. They've worked harder than they ever have. I think we need to let them do their job for now and not focus on reinventing their job. We're no longer in crisis management." LaSala couldn't be directed to shift the focus? "I had that conversation with him when we were going through budget creation last year … and he didn't agree. That's not a criticism. I see a vision of where Pinellas needs to go in five years and I think Bob's vision was different."

Pinellas commissioner Norm Roche: A vocal critic of the administrator, Roche said afterward he was happy with the outcome but unhappy about how it was handled. "The Board of County Commissioners is the hiring authority and the Board of County Commissioners should discuss an exit strategy. I don't think that's something that should be relegated to law firms."

Pinellas commissioners fire County Administrator Bob LaSala by unanimous vote 04/15/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 7:11pm]
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