It comes as no surprise that the Pinellas County Commission's search for a new county administrator ended Tuesday without really leaving the county courthouse. Interim administrator Mark Woodard has worked for the county for more than 25 years, and the lavish praise commissioners heaped on him short-circuited a national search. Woodard's audition as the interim went well, and his knowledge of the county and its challenges provide stability and a new sense of optimism.
Since taking over in April after the commission fired County Administrator Bob LaSala, Woodard has done more than keep the seat warm. He reworked everything from the county's mission statement to the names of some departments. He strengthened his relationships with commissioners who felt ignored by LaSala. And he changed directions from the course LaSala had set in several key areas.
The county's proposed budget for 2014-15, for example, was under construction when LaSala was fired. Woodard, who became an assistant county administrator in 2001 and served as LaSala's chief of staff, sought more input from commissioners before rolling out the spending plan. He made clearer what money the county will have available to spend, cut back on consultants and agreed to spend millions that LaSala had planned to save in case the economy weakened. "All of the arrows seem to be pointing in a very positive direction,'' Woodard told the Times editorial board recently. "I think previously there was always 'the sky is falling' view of the world.''
Of course, for several years the sky did appear to be falling for local governments as the economic collapse caused property values to plummet and businesses to fold. Pinellas was forced to cut tens of millions in spending and roughly 1,700 jobs. Commissioners credited LaSala for ably steering the county through the financial crisis even after they fired him for being too confrontational and fumbling a couple of issues. Woodard will have the benefit of rising tax revenues, record tourism numbers and general optimism about the future.
Aside from the county budget, Woodard and the commission also have charted a new direction on stabilizing the Emergency Medical Services system. They abandoned LaSala's push for aggressive changes in favor of detente with the cities and fire districts and more modest reforms, negotiating a deal with St. Petersburg and working on separate agreements with the others. The Veterans Services Office that had been buried under layers of bureaucracy in the county's health program is back to being a separate program and staffing up to reduce backlogs of requests for help. An ambitious building project to expand health services that commissioners were not sold on also has been significantly scaled back.
Woodard's expertise has been with budgets, and now he has much more on his plate. Pinellas faces many challenges, including negotiating the remaining EMS agreements, strengthening efforts to help the homeless, providing access to health care, encouraging economic development and pushing for a robust mass transit system. The new county administrator has brought new energy, openness and collaboration to those efforts, and his success hinges on sustaining that approach.
Read all of the Times' recommendations for the Aug. 26 primary at www.tampabay.com/opinion