Pinellas county commissioners made the correct decision Tuesday to fire County Administrator Bob LaSala without drama or a nasty confrontation. LaSala performed ably in many respects under difficult circumstances over the last five years, but he had lost the confidence and trust of most of his bosses and could not continue. The short discussion and unanimous vote was surgical and professional, and now a more thoughtful commission can focus on the future with a fresh approach that emphasizes building consensus.
Although LaSala's contract allows him to stay for 90 days after being terminated, the reality is someone else will have the final say on key decisions during a transition period. That places a greater burden on commission chair Karen Seel, who skillfully brought LaSala's tenure to a tidy conclusion. The commission also ought to promptly begin a wide search for LaSala's successor.
Here are five areas that Pinellas commissioners should focus on as they search for a new county administrator:
County government is much leaner than it was before the economic recession, and LaSala deserves credit for capably steering Pinellas through the worst of it. As the economy improves and revenue from property taxes and sales taxes grows slightly, there will be plenty of requests for more money to meet neglected needs. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri will be asking for more money as he struggles to hire and retain deputies, and arts groups would like to see the county resume modestly investing in cultural arts. But commissioners will have to be careful about ranking priorities, because money still will be tight.
Emergency Medical Services.
With LaSala leaving, the cities and fire districts will have little incentive to go along with the county's modest plan to make the EMS system more cost-efficient. But county commissioners should not take the easy way out and let the issue drop. The EMS system remains too expensive, and the commissioners should continue to push for the changes to be carried out.
As the economy recovers, Pinellas should not embrace the same old sprawl of strip malls and big-box stores. There should be smarter land use planning, and there should be a broader strategy than approving tax breaks for jobs that may never come.
The county made progress in recent years in areas ranging from caring for the homeless to improving health care and housing for the indigent and for veterans. But the direction of some of those efforts needs greater clarity, particularly in the wake of the forced resignation of a key member of LaSala's staff who oversaw some of those efforts.
Nothing could affect the county's future more than the November transit referendum on a 1 cent sales tax to pay for an improved bus system and light rail. Six of seven commissioners voted to put the referendum on the ballot, and they have a responsibility to explain to voters the benefits of a vigorous public transit system.