NEW PORT RICHEY — Longtime Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher has decided that riding off into the sunset is too boring.
Gallagher, 61, had planned to retire when his four-year contract expires in September 2009, ending his tight grip on power that began in 1982.
But he told the Times that he now plans to stay two or three more years, as long as the County Commission extends his contract. And at least a majority of the board — Michael Cox, Pat Mulieri and Ted Schrader — said they support keeping the man they call Florida's longest tenured county administrator.
"I've got some things I wants to finish, (although) you never get to finish everything in your time," said Gallagher, who earns $180,700 annually. "I'm still in good health. I still enjoy what I'm doing."
Gallagher said he feels less stress since tapping Michele Baker last year to be his chief deputy, as she has taken some tasks off his plate.
But many of his long-serving department heads and administrators are due to retire within a few years, leaving holes in county leadership.
Plus, he still has goals to accomplish — notably improving the county's handle on growth after struggling to expand services such as roads and utilities to keep pace with the burgeoning population.
He's not the only one seeing room for improvement.
A report this year by a panel from the Urban Land Institute said the county's development management "has become focused on immediate problems at the expense of the long term."
Notably, it recommended reducing the power of the Development Review Committee, a board of top county staffers headed by Gallagher that often decides how major developments are built. Instead, the panel recommends the DRC become a technical review team of midlevel managers.
The panel, mostly made up of development industry officials outside Pasco, also found that the county's development services don't work together.
"While the county has the best intentions, it has not established a clear, concise vision of what the county wants to be or how it sees the future," the panel's report said.
It recommended that Pasco create land development standards catering to the needs of five market areas, such as a central county region distinct from the southern corridor running across State Road 54.
Commissioners said they support acting on the recommendations, although they are creating new development laws this year and next to improve how the county manages growth.
But after that, Cox and Mulieri said they support the suggestion to turning the DRC's decision-making responsibilities to the Planning Commission. The DRC would then become a team of staffers that reviews projects without a public hearing process, reducing trouble and expense for developers.
Doing so could wrest power from Gallagher, who Mulieri said was "hesitant" to virtually disband the DRC.
"I think it's good to have DRC because it gets everybody together in one place," Gallagher said. "I think if the ordinances lay it out in black and white, that's okay [to reduce the DRC's role]. … But it's rarely so simple as black and white in the land development code."
For those complications — and the demands Pasco faces to find ways to tighten its spending these days — keeping Gallagher in charge makes sense, Mulieri said.
"I don't think this is the time to bring in anybody new," Mulieri said. Referring to leadership disputes in Hernando County, she said, "Look at how many times they have changed administrators — there's no continuity. These are really rough times."
Of the five-member commission — which hires the administrator — Cox, Mulieri and Schrader are virtually guaranteed to be in office when an extension comes up. Commissioners Jack Mariano and Ann Hildebrand still face challenges on the ballot in November.
"I would be surprised if there wasn't overwhelming support to go ahead and extend that contract," said Schrader.
But it's reversal from 18 months ago, when commissioners such as Mulieri were urging Gallagher to name a chief deputy as his retirement loomed.
In January, however, Schrader and Gallagher began talking about extending his contract as they drove to a meeting in Tallahassee. Gallagher said he felt healthy. He also has a daughter in college and is raising the teenage son of his deceased brother.
Meanwhile, Gallagher had looked at the roster of his longtime senior staffers and counted who would still be around in a few years.
"They'll all be gone," he said this week.
So the county now plans to begin creating job positions for deputies to start learning department heads' roles to ease the leadership transition next year, Gallagher said.
But he promises he'll be part of a transition, too.
"I really don't want to be doing this near age 70," Gallagher said.
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.