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Pinellas County to name interim leader, delay search talks until May

ST. PETERSBURG — Wanted: Chief executive to run the government of Florida's sixth most populous county. Will help oversee a budget of nearly $1.8 billion. Florida experience preferred, good people skills a must.

Pinellas County commissioners will soon be on the hunt to replace ousted Administrator Bob LaSala. Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel said she will recommend that the board discuss the search process and a timeline at its May 20 meeting.

In the meantime, commissioners say they already have an executive capable of navigating the county in the coming months.

At a work session Tuesday, the board is expected to tap Assistant County Administrator Mark Woodard to serve as acting administrator. LaSala's contract called for a 90-day notice, so he's technically still a county employee. After that period ends, Woodard, 55, will be the interim administrator until a permanent replacement is hired.

Seel notified county employees of Woodard's likely new role last week.

"In all capacities, (Woodard) has served admirably and I have full confidence in his ability to manage county government ably through this transition," Seel wrote.

Seel said she recommended delaying the search talk until May 20 to give employees and the board time to catch their breath and focus on more pressing issues.

Between now and then, commissioners will talk to constituents to see what they want in their next chief executive, she said, noting she also plans to ask the county's human resources department to collect employee feedback.

"My message is we need calm in the valley right now, and that relates even to the discussion about our future county administrator," Seel said.

Commissioners say the county needs someone with diplomacy skills to repair fractured relationships with city and community partners. LaSala drew criticism for a management style that his bosses said contributed to employee turnover and high-profile disputes.

"We need somebody who can build consensus and keep us moving forward," Commissioner Susan Latvala said. "Those people skills are No. 1 on my list."

Latvala is among commissioners who favor a national search.

"You don't know what great talent is out there," Latvala said. "We may think we have the best person under our roof, but there could be somebody better."

Commissioner Norm Roche believes the board should search first for qualified candidates within Pinellas, including current county employees as well as executives in both the public and private sectors.

"Pinellas County is quite unique," Roche said. "We have a multitude of talented individuals here. If we can't come to a consensus, then we can go outside."

Commissioners will be juggling a variety of pressing matters along with the search for a new executive. Setting the 2015 budget is among them, and finance is an area of Woodard's expertise.

He joined the county in 1988 as senior financial analyst and served as director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1994 until 2001, when he was tapped for his current post. In his role as assistant administrator, Woodard oversees the Office and Management and Budget.

"There's nobody who knows that budget better than Mark does," said Commissioner Janet Long.

The county also is in the middle of a brewing battle with several cities over cuts to Emergency Medical Services funding, and must decide whether to move forward with a planned $5 million health clinic in Largo.

"His hands will be full, but he's more than capable of handling that," Commissioner Ken Welch said.

Woodard describes himself as a behind-the-scenes administrator who has become more accustomed to the hot seat. He served as acting administrator when LaSala was absent during his five-year tenure.

"I've had to develop skills to work with others in a collaborative way to get things done," he said. "Every person should feel valued and respected, whether it's a community partner or someone in the organization working on a road crew."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

Pinellas County to name interim leader, delay search talks until May 04/20/14 [Last modified: Sunday, April 20, 2014 11:05pm]
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