CLEARWATER — A Pinellas government veteran now living in California is set to become the county's next top administrator.
The County Commission chose Robert LaSala on Tuesday from a field of three finalists to succeed interim Administrator Fred Marquis, who has held the post nearly a year.
If the two sides agree on a contract as expected Sept. 2, LaSala will assume the county's chief executive position in November.
"I'm excited, I'm enthused, I'm honored," said LaSala, 59. "I'm looking forward to working out all the details so that this becomes a reality."
LaSala would take the job Steve Spratt left in September when he resigned during the controversy over a land deal involving Property Appraiser Jim Smith. Marquis, who spent 22 years as administrator before stepping down in 2000, took over as the temporary administrator.
LaSala is scheduled to interview Thursday for an administrative post in Boulder, Colo. He declined to say whether Pinellas or Boulder was his top pick but said he had deep roots here and a commitment to the area.
His daughter was born in Pinellas in 1985, the same year he helped orchestrate the Hurricane Elena evacuation as the chief assistant county administrator.
LaSala grew up on Long Island and worked in Pinellas from 1979 to 1989. Marquis, his then boss, said his assistant had to undergo a process of "Southernification," which involved loosening up a bit and eating collard greens.
"After that," Marquis said, "he was just an excellent staff member."
Administrative posts in Boca Raton, Coral Springs and Sarasota County followed. He then went to California and was city manager in Sunnyvale from 1997 until 2004. From 2005 to January of this year, when he resigned, LaSala was city manager in Lancaster, a community of 145,000 in northern Los Angeles County.
According to LaSala and Marquis, who interviewed officials familiar with Lancaster politics, LaSala had taken over from a city manager with deep ties to the development community. When the retired administrator sought to use his influence to push a project through, Marquis said, LaSala bucked him, saying the development would get the same treatment as any other.
The former manager and his development buddies then vowed to get LaSala, Marquis said, and a political struggle developed that divided the City Council.
"I just felt it was the best professional decision I could make," LaSala said of his resignation.
Early last month, the field was cut to four: LaSala; Mark Woodard, a Pinellas assistant county administrator and husband of Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio; Peter Crichton, manager of Cumberland County, Maine; and Bruce Loucks, most recently administrator in Charlotte County.
Woodard, a Tampa resident, took himself out of the running Friday, saying he understood concerns that the new administrator live in Pinellas County.
Some commissioners expressed initial skepticism about the final field, saying they had hoped more contenders with experience leading large governments would have come forward. The consultant hired to recruit candidates said getting top public sector management talent to consider Florida is tough these days given the overall economy and the need for local governments to cut spending.
But after interviews that took place last week, commissioners said they were impressed by the finalists, and none more than LaSala.
"His expertise came across loud and clear," said commission Chairman Bob Stewart. "The chemistry was right."
Will Van Sant can be reached at email@example.com or 445-4166.