Is Pinellas County ready to have a mayor?
In an unexpected move, the county's Charter Review Commission will study whether to add the question to the 2010 ballot.
Despite County Administrator Bob LaSala's resistance — he stands to be ousted or lose most of his influence — the charter review panel recently reversed its January decision to set aside the issue.
If voters passed such an amendment, the proposal would shift the government leadership from an administrator hired by the County Commission to an executive elected by voters. And it could light a fuse involving anyone seeking or protecting political turf.
LaSala argued against the measure in January, saying a hired executive brings professional management and higher ethical standards.
But the idea regained steam at the urging of member Andy Steingold, mayor of Safety Harbor, members said. With a group in Hillsborough County trying to get a county mayor measure on the ballot there, members were willing to at least discuss a mayor.
Steingold said other large counties with mayors — such as Orange County — sometimes are more progressive, and mayors are directly accountable to voters. Under Rick Baker, St. Petersburg used a strong mayor to prosper, Steingold said.
"I think that — good, bad or indifferent — he had an opportunity to be creative and revitalize certain areas of the city. I think that elected executive goes a long way to perpetuate creativity," Steingold said.
But Steingold acknowledges that exploring a county mayor could open a Pandora's box of problems that would cost his support.
Pinellas' 24 cities and the county often square off in power struggles — with the county administrator often on the front line — over things such as annexation or fire rescue services. The county mayor would have a similar role, possibly as a political partisan. Steingold said a county mayor could have helped resolve some of those fights.
But it may also spark more differences.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said he has no position yet.
"I'll let the Charter Review Committee look at it. But I do believe that elected officials are more responsive than appointed officials," Foster said.
But County Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel said the county of more than 900,000 needs someone educated in running government.
Charter Review Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan, a former county commissioner, doubts the need for a county mayor, saying the county is running well enough without one.
Duncan promised to not have staffers "do a heck of lot of research on it," predicting it will amount to a "short discussion."
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.