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Pinellas County's incoming administrator no stranger to conflict

Robert LaSala, the man tapped to become Pinellas County's next top administrator, knows the hazards of being a public sector executive.

Getting forced out is common when you answer to a rotating cast of elected officials, each with particular allegiances. The average tenure of a county administrator or city manager is seven years.

Newspaper accounts and interviews shed light on LaSala's recent skirmishes. He's made enemies, but backers who know local government say that's the cost of staying true to principle and the public interest.

A clash with a powerful local developer and his allies led to LaSala's most recent job departure. Since January, he's been a private consultant.

"You can get crossways sometimes doing the right thing," said former Sarasota County Commissioner Charley Richards, who worked with LaSala in the 1990s.

LaSala, 59, grew up on Long Island and aspired to be an inner-city teacher. He shifted toward public administration and got a master's from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

He's held posts in New York state, New Jersey, California, and Florida, where he worked for Pinellas County from 1979 to 1989. For most of that time, he was chief assistant county administrator under Fred Marquis.

After a nationwide search, the County Commission on Tuesday chose LaSala as permanent administrator. The job has been vacant since September, when Steve Spratt resigned following disclosure of a land deal between the county and Property Appraiser Jim Smith.

If both sides are able to finalize a contract on Sept. 9, as expected, LaSala would start work in November. A salary is undetermined. Spratt was paid $223,500 a year.

LaSala assumed his most recent government post — city manager in Lancaster, Calif. — in 2005. Lancaster is a desert community of 145,000 people in north Los Angeles County that has struggled with an influx of gang activity.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office Commander Carl Deeley oversaw Lancaster when LaSala was there. Deeley said the new city manager moved swiftly to increase law enforcement funding, establish neighborhood watches and ramp up long term investigations.

Results were immediate and dramatic, Deeley said, and serious crime dropped for the first time in a decade.

"I learned a great deal about leadership during his tenure," Deeley said. "I'm unashamedly a Bob LaSala fan and was very sad to see him go."

LaSala didn't have the same success with developers as he did the law enforcement community.

His predecessor as city manager teamed up with a man named Frank Visco, former head of the Republican Party in California and a local political player, to build a 150-acre development called Amargosa Creek.

Visco, who could not be reached this week for comment, complained that LaSala was hostile to the deal, and told a local newspaper, "I'm doing everything I can to terminate this individual."

Three of the City Council's five members sided with Visco in the fight that ensued. Despite riotous public meetings where hundreds of citizens showed up to support LaSala and a petition drive to recall his adversaries on the council (www.lancasterrecall.com), the end game was clear.

Lacking the votes on the council to support him, LaSala resigned in November 2007.

"He was doomed by these guys because he wouldn't kiss their a--," said former Lancaster City Council member Jim Jeffra. "He was railroaded."

LaSala came to Lancaster from Sunnyvale, Calif., where he was city manager from 1997 to 2004. His time in Sunnyvale was marked by persistent friction with the police union over contract and budget issues.

After years of tension, according to news reports, the union gave unprecedented sums (about five times its typical amount) to help elect a slate of candidates in late 2003 willing to oust LaSala.

"I made a concerted effort to work at building a good relationship with them," said LaSala, but the union's move to get sympathizers on the council was successful, and he moved on.

LaSala's departures have not always involved rifts. Despite overseeing a controversial move from septic tank to sewer service in Sarasota County as deputy county administrator, a position he held from 1991 until 1997, he appears to have left for California on good terms.

Marquis, who is now serving as interim Pinellas administrator, said LaSala moved on from Pinellas County in 1989 simply from a desire for professional advancement.

"He knew that I was not leaving, and it was kind of a dead-end street," Marquis said. "After being here for 10 years, he wanted to manage his own town."

LaSala's first stop was Boca Raton, where he was city manager from 1989 until 1991. He won praise from the National Association for Women for his handling of a sexual harassment case, and criticism for granting pay raises of up to 11 percent to colleagues.

He resigned from the job in Boca Raton, a city that saw eight managers pass through between 1966 and 1991. Five in addition to LaSala resigned and two were fired, according to news accounts.

LaSala said he always enters his new posts fully committed, but with eyes wide open because there are no guarantees in his line of work, one that he loves and is eager to continue Pinellas.

"This is a noble profession, this is interesting stuff, and I'm passionate about it," he said. "It matters to me."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

Pinellas County's incoming administrator no stranger to conflict 08/07/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 7, 2008 11:11pm]
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