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Bob LaSala did right by Pinellas his first time around

Who would want to be a county administrator in this struggling economy, in a state beset by problems?

Bob LaSala, that's who.

So what if the economy is in the toilet? Who cares if being a county administrator here these days is less about "visioning" for the future and more about retrenchment? For LaSala, being Pinellas County administrator would be the job of a lifetime.

If the name rings a bell, it is because LaSala has been here before. As a young man only a few years out of college, LaSala got his first shot at a big job when he was named chief deputy county administrator of Pinellas County in 1980.

LaSala has been around the block a few times since he left Pinellas in 1989. He's lost a lot of hair and gained a lot of "smile lines." He's worked in other government management jobs in Florida and California. He settled in as a city government specialist, most recently working as city manager of Lancaster, Calif.

But last week, after a national search, Pinellas County commissioners decided they want LaSala to be the next county administrator. If LaSala and the county can come to terms on a contract — and it is difficult to imagine LaSala letting any provision of the contract keep him away — the deal will be sealed at a Sept. 9 commission meeting and LaSala will start work in November.

He'll replace his old mentor, Fred Marquis, who came out of retirement to be interim county administrator after Steve Spratt resigned last year. Back in the 1980s, LaSala was Marquis' deputy, trained by him and in charge when Marquis was away.

LaSala left Pinellas because he wanted a crack at the top job in a local government. He ended up city manager in Boca Raton, where he worked only two years. From 1991 to 1997, he was deputy county administrator in Sarasota County. Then California beckoned, and LaSala took a job as city manager of Sunnyvale, Calif., staying for more than six years before moving on to the city manager job in Lancaster. He left that job in January after losing city council support.

Some might legitimately ask whether LaSala's job experience prepares him to lead a county with a population of almost 1-million. Consider the population numbers for the jobs he's held since leaving Pinellas: Lancaster, 145,000; Sunnyvale, 132,000; Sarasota County, 300,000; Boca Raton, 63,000.

All much smaller, but LaSala has been tested in some of those jobs. As St. Petersburg Times staff writer Will Van Sant reported last week, LaSala has confronted a big crime problem in one job, run afoul of a powerful developer while trying to do the right thing, endured union battles, and dealt with a wide variety of controversies and challenges.

None of those challenges, however, compares to the test he faced in Pinellas County on Labor Day weekend in 1985. It is that test, and how he responded, that is my most lasting memory of Bob LaSala.

A strong Hurricane Elena was wobbling in the Gulf of Mexico off the west coast of Florida on that Friday at the start of the long holiday weekend. Forecasters concluded, late in the day, that Elena might hit Pinellas County. At around midnight, the first-ever mandatory evacuation of Pinellas County was ordered. More than 300,000 people, awakened by sirens and bullhorns, left their homes for shelters or the highway. It was, the recordkeepers say, the largest evacuation of a metropolitan area ever attempted.

County Administrator Fred Marquis, an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, was away on military maneuvers. His chief deputy, LaSala, was in charge while Marquis was away.

But LaSala was at the hospital with his wife, who was giving birth. As I recall, it was their first child.

The county courthouse in Clearwater, where county government is headquartered and the emergency operations center was located, was a madhouse. The place was inundated with county workers, the news media and people who just showed up there. No one was in charge. It was the middle of the night and the weather was deteriorating rapidly.

Put yourself in the place of LaSala at that moment and consider the staggering responsibility confronting you. Consider that what was going on in the streets and neighborhoods of Pinellas had never happened here before. Consider that a hurricane has you in its sights. Consider that you have a new baby in a waterfront hospital down the street.

I remember vividly the moment that LaSala walked into the lobby of the courthouse that night 23 years ago. He looked shell-shocked. He was immediately surrounded by people asking him what to do and reporters wanting answers to questions.

LaSala stepped onto the elevator and disappeared, leaving people slack-jawed.

I don't know where he went or what he did. Maybe he huddled with his staff and the emergency management director. Maybe he slugged back a pot of coffee. Maybe he got on his knees somewhere.

But shortly, he was back in the lobby. And he took charge.

I'd say he passed the test.

Diane Steinle's e-mail address is dsteinle@sptimes.com.

Bob LaSala did right by Pinellas his first time around 08/09/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 9, 2008 2:51pm]
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