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Pinellas County administrator faces increasingly divided board, more questions

For the past two months, a consultant hired by Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala has led brainstorming sessions with commissioners about ways to cut county spending.

It's a change from last year, when Commissioner Karen Seel felt like LaSala sprang budget information on them at the last minute, without enough explanation or time for debate.

"We didn't do that when I was chairman — and I would have liked to," Seel said of this year's sessions.

Facing more questions and scrutiny from the seven-member commission, LaSala has tried to become more responsive. He parlays more questions and parses details of more proposals.

That doesn't mean he's faring well. Some of his key proposals have misfired on a board that is increasingly more divided than the one that hired him in 2008.

His proposal to impose a new stormwater drainage fee on unincorporated residents barely survived in February.

The carefully watched study he ordered to improve emergency medical services contained numerous errors and is being reworked.

And despite his support, the creation of a combined curbside recycling and trash pickup service faces uncertain odds at a March 15 commission meeting.

"I think this is a learning process for Bob," Commissioner John Morroni said. "This isn't the board that he was used to before."

LaSala, 61, who is paid $225,000 annually, has spent most of his tenure trying to mend budget troubles, juggling unpopular layoffs and spending cuts.

But three members of the board that hired him are gone, replaced by the commissioners who more often question him.

LaSala acknowledged a new climate on the board, but chalked it up to the broader economic problems facing the community, not deteriorating relationships.

"I think it's a product of the times … and individual styles, interests and preferences, and new members bringing new approaches to the larger body," LaSala said.

"I think in this environment any kind of tax fee or charge is more difficult. And in this environment, it should be."

But Commissioners Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield have lobbed zingers at LaSala's work.

For example, LaSala tried to schedule an initial vote last month to create the stormwater fee before a consultant's report detailing the potential costs was done. The vote date coincided with legal requirements to put the fee on November tax bills. The board delayed the vote.

The report ultimately suggested charging homeowners $27 to $187 a year.

"I don't think this is a very transparent process," Brickfield told LaSala.

Later, after a 4-3 vote kept the proposal alive, Bostock suggested that LaSala had bungled the process.

"I told Mr. LaSala in a one-on-one meeting that I was concerned he was giving us one set of options to go use — not only institute this tax, but institute it now," Bostock said.

LaSala isn't without support on the board.

Seel and commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala both said they don't believe the county administrator is overreaching in his duties. The proposals originated from direction by the board.

"If they gave that direction, they should have known what was going to come back," Seel said.

LaSala said he has a duty to make recommendations to the board. He and the staff worked hard to make sure commissioners understood the vote was procedural, but he acknowledged he didn't anticipate the problem the debate could cause.

"From what I can see, he's bending over backward," Lat­vala said.

Despite an edgier working relationship, none of the commissioners said they're unhappy with LaSala's overall performance. The disputes have exposed cracks in individual relationships.

"I'm nowhere near the boiling point that maybe Neil or Nancy are," Morroni said.

Bostock called LaSala capable, but said the board needs to play a bigger role in setting the county's agenda. This budget sessions veered from strategy to only figuring out ways to make the next budget work, she said.

Brickfield said LaSala is "doing a good job" and has done better providing information in a tough job.

"In fact, it would be weird and bizarre if we weren't debating," said Brickfield, who, along with Bostock, won office after LaSala was hired.

Commissioner Norm Roche, who was elected in November to replace longtime member Calvin Harris, is a bigger skeptic of the county's practices.

"I think you're seeing an actual change — and maybe some uncomfortable changes — from what was a flowing process before," Roche said.

They aren't the only new eyeballs. Now the tea party has started showing up.

At most commission meetings, a handful of activists watch board debates for hours — more if debates on spending rile them.

"This is costly to the taxpayer and will expand our government unnecessarily, to the citizens of Pinellas County," Palm Harbor resident Deb Caso told the board about the stormwater fee.

LaSala simply stared ahead.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas County administrator faces increasingly divided board, more questions 03/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 5, 2011 11:13pm]
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