DADE CITY — The day after announcing his retirement to county employees, County Administrator John Gallagher pressed forward with routine business at a commission meeting where his departure never came up.
But during breaks, it was a top conversation topic amongst commissioners, staffers and visitors.
The most common conclusion? After more than three decades as the head of county government, Gallagher will be a tough man to replace.
"He's a Pasco institution," said newly elected Commissioner Kathryn Starkey. "His institutional knowledge and his passion for Pasco is going to be hard to match."
Gallagher, 65, will leave in late April or early May, just weeks after his 31st anniversary on the job. He is the longest-serving county administrator in Florida history.
"I'm grateful for the fact that Mr. Gallagher is able to leave on his own terms," said Commissioner Ted Schrader. "He can look back with great pride."
Many remember Gallagher for ushering in key pieces of infrastructure after he took over a rural county in March 1982 as it was headed for explosive growth.
But a more recent development could end up as a key part of his legacy.
Gallagher admits feeling nervous when he invited the Urban Land Institute to visit Pasco in 2008 to critique the county's growth policies. The resulting report is widely praised inside and outside county government as a refreshing change to the way the county does business.
The ULI study has been the blueprint officials used to create a predictable permitting system and encourage dense growth in west Pasco and along the county's southern edge.
"He put his whole legacy on the line when he brought this forward," Commissioner Jack Mariano said. "He knew it wasn't going to be all positive."
"He was willing to accept the ULI study," added Commissioner Pat Mulieri. "That was hard for him when they said, 'You know, you're not doing it right.' I think we've all grown."
Commissioners praise Gallagher for improving development standards. Schrader pointed to some "poorly designed" developments in west Pasco built in the '60s when the county was still a mecca for retirees.
"I believe he's learned from a lot of that," he said. "That needed to change."
Schrader credited Gallagher for helping with the 50-year plan in east Pasco's Pasadena Hills area. The plan envisions clustering development in dense villages, and has a comprehensive road network paid for with enhanced charges on development. The effort required convincing dozens of property owners to take a long view of a higher-quality community.
"Future (commissioners) are going to look back and say, 'Wow, that was a wise decision,' " Schrader said.
His tenure didn't come without threats. It only takes three votes to replace a county administrator.
In 1990, two longtime commissioners were defeated. Critics at the time wore buttons that said, "Two down, three to go."
Gallagher recalled speaking with Mike Fasano, then a Republican activist who hadn't yet been elected to the Legislature.
"He used to say to me, 'We're not after you,' " Gallagher said. "I said, 'Right. You get those (incumbent commissioners), you got me.' "
Gallagher kept three allies.
Fasano, about to start his 19th year as a lawmaker, had nothing but kind words for Gallagher on Tuesday.
He recalled having Gallagher as his state and local government teacher at Gulf High School. Gallagher, a New Port Richey council member at the time, offered extra credit to students who stopped by city meetings. Fasano never went. He earned a B.
Fasano graded Gallagher's tenure as an A-plus. "He didn't use the office to better himself or a special interest," Fasano said. "He used that to better the county."
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Gallagher even earned plaudits from some in the business community that sometimes chafe at county government bureaucracy.
"We have had, I guess, differences of opinion on occasion, but it's always been a pleasurable difference," said Billy E. Brown, the longtime general manager of Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative. The company not only dealt with the county on utility issues but also as the developer of the Lake Jovita subdivision and One Pasco Center.
Developer Lew Friedland said Pasco "is not the easiest place in the world to develop in."
"John was always very tough," said Friedland, whose company developed much of Trinity. "He had a vision for Pasco County to build higher-quality projects than what Pasco was like 30 years ago.
"For guys that wanted to build the cheapest project around, I'm sure this was very frustrating," Friedland added. "John is one of those people that we'll probably all miss more than we know."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.