CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission decided Tuesday that its best candidate for chief executive is already sitting on the dais.
After roundly praising interim county administrator Mark Woodard's performance since taking over in April for his fired predecessor, Bob LaSala, the seven-member board voted unanimously Tuesday to halt a nationwide search and tap Woodard for the job.
Commissioners agreed that none of the other 45 applicants measured up to Woodard's institutional knowledge and his now-proven ability to tackle controversial issues.
"There's a value to that," Commissioner Susan Latvala said. "How do you weigh that against somebody who's new and may have all the experience and education we're looking for, but they don't have those skills and the background knowledge about Pinellas County?"
Woodard, 56, got choked up as he thanked commissioners.
"We're going to work every day to do things to serve the public," he said. "That's the way it should be and that's the way this board wants it to be."
None of the other hopefuls had experience running a government the size of Pinellas County's. And none had Florida government experience as deep as Woodard, who joined the county in 1988 as a budget analyst and served as LaSala's chief of staff.
The board's publicly expressed enthusiasm for Woodard in recent weeks likely scared away some potential candidates. At a July workshop, 10 days before the application deadline, Latvala asked fellow commissioners if it would be "disingenuous" to go forward, given how pleased they were with Woodard. Other board members shared her sentiment but decided to continue the search and re-evaluate it after the application period ended.
Those comments hurt the recruitment process, said Commissioners Norm Roche and Charlie Justice.
"The processes protect the organization and the structure of this government, and that is more important than any individual in this room," Justice said, even as he later praised Woodard.
Woodard impressed commissioners with a transparent budget process this year. They also liked his handling of the effort to reach a deal with the 18 cities over emergency medical services, and the progress he has made to heal relationships with health and human services partner providers that fractured under LaSala's leadership.
"He knows where the mistakes have been made, he knows not to make those same mistakes, and he knows how to fill those cracks," Commissioner John Morroni said.
They also praised Woodard's responsiveness to their questions and noted the support he has among county employees.
"I can't tell you how many things he's followed up on that had just been languishing," Commissioner Janet Long said. "No matter what the issue is, he is on the money and he doesn't make you feel as though you don't know what you're talking about or it's none of your business."
Woodard told the board he does not intend to seek a contract with any of the standard perquisites, such as a car allowance and severance package. In an interview after the meeting, Woodard said that sends a message of solidarity to employees and conveys "the importance of public service."
He could seek a salary bump, though. His pay increased by $20,000, to $199,513, when he took the interim post. LaSala was paid about $225,000.
Woodard said his priorities include striking deals with the other 17 fire departments that provide EMS service, mending relationships with community partners, and bolstering departments and services slashed or merged during the recession.
"Did it save money, did it provide for additional efficiencies, or did it allow us to enhance customer service? If we can't answer 'yes' to at least one of those questions, then we need to go in and re-evaluate that change," he said.