CLEARWATER — Staffers and other board members wore their usual suits and ties, but Norm Roche dressed in cowboy boots, blue jeans and a sport coat for his first meeting as a Pinellas County commissioner.
It was just one signal that the unorthodox outsider in Roche would not be going along with the status quo.
"I came dressed in boots and jeans because that's who people elected," Roche said Friday, promising transparency and a hard look at spending by an average citizen.
That appeal helped make him the first challenger to unseat an incumbent commissioner since 1992. Now the real test will be whether Roche can muster enough support on the commission to fulfill any of his promises or whether his demeanor will be too off-putting to colleagues.
Fellow politicians and community members are trying to come to grips with him after years of weathering his punches during three previously unsuccessful attempts to join the board. Winning on just $10,800 in fundraising — half from himself — Roche has none of the political debts or ties of most incoming officeholders.
He could alter the cozy dynamic of the board. Four county commissioners have been in office since 2000 or prior. But with Roche, three have been added since 2008 — Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield won that year — who are more likely to question and scrutinize issues that previously might have been settled in a meeting with top administrators.
Roche's first week was nothing if not fractious. He triggered an impasse when he hired an executive assistant less than two days after four of the seven members opposed it. The assistant started work before the board could take up the issue again.
Legally, he had the power because money was in the budget and the board couldn't reach a consensus to pull the money. However, the board had decided in June against filling staff vacancies, and Roche's victory over incumbent Calvin Harris created one when his aide left with him.
"He has to answer to the public," said 10-year Commissioner John Morroni, who acknowledged that Roche was in an unfair spot arriving as a new commissioner. "I hope that this does not set the tone for the next couple of years."
Although the first debate involved a single staffer, Roche's persistence in bucking a board majority could signal deeper strife to come on more serious issues.
A vote is due Nov. 30 on whether to extend the county's 5 percent tax on hotel stays, which could reserve money for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium.
In a few months, the commission also must decide how to make deep spending cuts — and probably service cuts — to solve a large but expected deficit.
"You're still talking about a guy, as anyone would be, who is overwhelmed. He's trying to get his footing," said lobbyist Todd Pressman, who soon will seek Roche's vote to loosen the county's digital billboard regulations.
"He's chosen, right or wrong, positive or negative, to have his own policy and stand by own policies, and it's created friction."
Roche said he is not ready to support the tourist tax proposal, which gives $2.5 million to the Salvador Dali Museum. He has meetings set with county attorneys, and a Monday visit to the Dali scheduled as officials mount an effort to win his vote.
But the proposal also reserves a way to help pay for a new stadium without a specific proposal for building one — a no-no, Roche said.
"We don't have a Rays stadium problem. We have a stadium," Roche said.
Five of seven commissioners have to approve the extension. With Roche and Bostock, there already are two likely no votes.
Roche, who has railed against county spending practices for years, said Friday he won't bless service cuts or taxes without audits and reviews proving the county is spending effectively.
Though he consistently chided the county's budget during the campaign, his opposition to new taxes isn't always ironclad. In a survey for AFL-CIO, he said he would be open to adding a 1-cent sales tax or increasing the gas tax to pay for construction projects if needed.
To defend hiring an aide, Roche said the commission's office operates well — papering over his repeated criticism of the board's overall handling of county finances.
Roche's knowledge about spending has impressed John Miolla, 72, an East Lake neighborhood leader who is assigned to keep up with Roche for the Council of North County Neighborhoods. But Miolla said Roche will have to learn where rhetoric meets reality.
"When you're on the outside looking in, it's easy to say I can do this or I can do that better," said Miolla, a 16-year resident.
In truth, Roche has been confounding people for years.
On Tuesday, he sat quietly during the first three hours of the commission meeting. Then he openly questioned the notion that he even had to ask the board for permission to hire an aide.
He also suggested people were out to see him fail, including the St. Petersburg Times.
When Republicans applauded his victory at a Nov. 8 party meeting, it was awkward. Some party members took photos with him. Others were still surprised at his arrival after they mostly ignored his run.
"Are you in shock?" asked Seminole City Council member Leslie Waters.
"Well, you know, not totally, but yes," Roche replied.
Roche acknowledges he has to learn the political side of governing, though being a former county employee helps him understand county operations.
He ran most of his campaign out of garage, speaking any place he could to capitalize on the conservative wave. Now he has an office in the county seat.
"I think on the positive side you've got a guy who is out of the typical political circles," said lobbyist Pressman. "I think that's a good breath of fresh air."
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.