CLEARWATER — After three failed runs, Norm Roche joined the Pinellas County Commission with a bang.
The Republican's first meeting in November brought the seven-member board to a standstill over whether he could hire an aide. He has questioned the county's spending and operations — though not always winning a majority vote for his view.
The Times spoke with Roche, 49, the first person to beat an incumbent since 1992, about his impressions of the first few months of his four-year term.
What has been the biggest part of learning the job so far?
I did it so long, I feel like the learning curve wasn't as steep with me as some in the past, because I had prepped so much for this. But the separation between the commissioners on a day-to-day basis — and that's following (the) Sunshine (open meetings law) — working within that, of course, sometimes you do want to walk over and go, "Hey," but you can't do that. That's been the learning aspect of it, making sure I don't flub up and violate a Sunshine thing. I remain cognizant of that all the time, because you know me, I love to talk.
What's been the biggest surprise?
I don't know if this will sound the way it may sound, but there hasn't been … a big surprise. … The best thing that ever happened to me was losing a few. … I feel very comfortable and it sounds cliche, but I was really able to hit the ground running.
What does that say about your need to hire an aide?
If you want to talk in terms of a surprise, that whole right-off-the-bat adventure was a surprise. I didn't expect to come in and actually have to struggle for assistance.
Given that you're saying you were prepared, did you really need an aide?
Prepared isn't necessarily, I don't mean like, need walls painted or an assistant. Prepared was on issues of the job. The assistant that keeps my system filed and the schedule is very in need. This is a full-time job, and when you're in a countywide seat, I'm all over the county. … Me being the new guy, it's very much in need and she's great.
When you look at what the county does, what does it do worst?
That's a good question … I don't know if it is specific. I would say what I want to do is what I've talked about for years: truly reorganize and review and restructure our county operations such that they're the most effective and efficient possible. Sounds good on a campaign placard and a slogan. It also sounds good as a goal. … I think we're experiencing that now. I think the board maybe hasn't been as involved as it could have in the past.
Recently, you left the dais during a debate on affordable housing programs. Were you frustrated?
Yeah, and I think it's come to fruition. … I had a goal and I focused on it and I got here. … We've got some very serious decisions coming up and that need to be made. I want to make damn certain that I have the most accurate, verifiable data available to make that decision. … I'm following the proper decorum as best I can, but you certainly saw frustration. It's a real feeling I had, but it's certainly not like I was storming off.
Where is the county working well enough that there's no reason to change?
I can't say as I know the answer yet, being here only four months. That's what I hope to find out.
Assess your impression and the performance of County Administrator Bob LaSala.
I don't do impressions — budum, cha! Bob and I, I've just worked with him for four months now. I think he's going through his own change with the new structure of the board. … He's doing his best to manage it.
Is he doing a good job?
From my position four months into it, I can only say yes. I think this upcoming four-month budget season is going to be a fascinating season. You should tune in, citizens should, everybody, because this is a good opportunity to see what's really going on in the county and see how we're spending our dollars, if you will, to meet the needs of our community. So far I can't say I have any fall in confidence in Bob because I'm still building my confidence in him.
Reach David DeCamp at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.