John Gallagher likes to build stuff. Lately, his county administrator's position has been more about planning stuff. As he prepares to depart county government next spring after 31 years as administrator, the duel focus of his career leaves Pasco well-positioned to replace its prevailing status as bedroom community with that of regional economic player.
Two weeks ago, Gallagher, 65, confirmed his planned departure — likely in April — and the commission now will be searching for a top administrator for the first time since 1982. His steady leadership and drive to get the best deal possible for the public are well-known traits. Ask anybody who sat across from him at the negotiating table or stood at the podium during a Development Review Committee meeting.
More important than extracting concessions from developers, however, was extracting a change in behavior. Gallagher demanded higher ethical standards, ending the deals and favors that brought grand jury scrutiny and arrest of the commission chairman the same year Gallagher was hired.
Paula O'Neil, clerk of the circuit court and county comptroller, recently volunteered that she once tried to brief Gallagher on planned audits of county departments. Gallagher cut her off. Don't tell us, he said. How are you going to find out if something's wrong if they know you're coming?
Gallagher followed rebuilding public faith in government with building the county infrastructure, a task that dominated his early tenure when Pasco Country was a two-laned rural/retirement community.
After voters and commissioners approved higher taxes, Pasco built a network of parks and libraries to greatly enhance the quality of life here. It modernized its utility system, closed a landfill and opened a state-of-the-art incinerator that turned trash into energy. It widened highways. Gallagher was one of the earliest cheerleaders for a proposed toll road to parallel U.S. 19. That route eventually moved slightly east, became the Suncoast Parkway and brought unbridled housing growth after its opening in 2001.
With the boom, though, came legitimate complaints that Pasco ignored its own environmental rules and had become home to the 1,599-home special — housing developments that just skated under the 1,600-unit threshold that triggered greater state scrutiny. Later, push back came from the development community via a 2008 Urban Land Institute study. It criticized county government as a hard-to-deal-with bureaucracy with overbearing regulations that stymied economic expansion. Gallagher admits he didn't expect the outside critique to be so severe.
Internally, the county government moved toward greater accountability on strategic planning, time management and budgeting via an organizational change dubbed LEAP — Lean, Efficient, Accountable Pasco. Then spending constraints forced by the Legislature, voter-approved tax exemptions and falling property values switched the outside focus from building to planning. That ULI study became the impetus for reconsidering how to develop the State Road 54/56 corridor, redevelop the U.S. 19 area and finance future transportation needs.
In that respect, Gallagher is correct in his assessment that he guided Pasco through its adolescence and the county is now ready to blossom.
"It's a new organization and it's time for the new organization to stand on its own,'' he said.
How long has Gallagher been at the top of that administrative flow chart? He has served with 11 different boards and 19 elected commissioners. He has outlived three former county attorneys with whom he worked. He negotiated law enforcement spending with six separate sheriffs.
But, even after 31 years, he has been unable to cross off every item on the to-do list. Ridge Road has not been extended eastward despite nearly two decades of trying. A planned waterfront county park in northwest Pasco faces an uncertain fate because of environmental concerns from a proposed channel dredging. Twenty-one years worth of hotel tax collections remain unspent as commissioners chased evolving and elusive tourist attractions. And the Trinity/Odessa area is without a regional park and library branch despite prior intentions of providing both. Though there has been progress on those last two items, there is still plenty for the next person to do.
Gallagher says his sense of humor aided his career. That, and he knew when to speak to contradict commissioners (privately) and when not to (in the board room).
"People say I don't talk a lot in commission meetings,'' Gallagher said, pausing before delivering the one-word punch line that doubles as his most impressive attribute.