It is a question of when Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala leaves, not if. LaSala appears to have lost the support of the majority of the County Commission, and a swift, graceful exit would benefit everyone. While he provided a steady hand through a difficult economic recession and tackled some tough issues, Pinellas has too much momentum and too many challenges to become distracted by a messy divorce between a hard-nosed administrator and a commission eager to build better relationships inside and outside the county courthouse.
The end of LaSala's five-year run as county administrator appears to have come quickly. He received critical to uneven evaluations from a majority of the commission, and commission chair Karen Seel on Monday added a discussion about LaSala's performance to today's meeting after taking it off the agenda late last week. Both LaSala and the commission have retained lawyers, which is never a good sign. The final straws came last week, when commissioners learned the county failed to apply for an $8.5 million matching grant for health care that eventually went through the Juvenile Welfare Board. They also were surprised to learn that Pinellas is not paying its property tax bill again on thousands of acres it owns in Pasco County.
In reality, today's confrontation has been brewing for months. Several commissioners, including Seel, Ken Welch and Janet Long, have been frustrated by LaSala's poor people skills and abrupt manner for some time and have not been satisfied with his efforts to improve. Inside county government, employee morale is low. LaSala's hiring of key administrators also has been uneven at best. One key example: Gwendolyn Warren, whom LaSala was forced to ask to resign as director of the county's health and community services department after she moved too fast for some commissioners and angered some local health providers.
LaSala, 64, brought stability to Pinellas government when he was hired in 2009 after a land purchase scandal forced out his predecessor and the county attorney. He has led the county through a difficult economic recession that forced the loss of some 1,700 county positions and tens of millions in spending cuts. The county has put new emphasis on issues ranging from the homeless to indigent health care, and LaSala has spent years working on ways to make the Emergency Medical Services system more cost-efficient.
Yet that work has now been undercut by too many fractious relationships inside and outside county government for LaSala. He wants to stay on for another year, but even if he keeps the support of four of seven commissioners he cannot be an effective administrator. The commission is more thoughtful and cohesive since Long and Commissioner Charlie Justice were elected in 2012, and the county needs an administrator who has the full faith and trust of the board. Pinellas also cannot afford to undermine public confidence in county government with the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum set for November.
There is no reason to make this a messy fight that leaves scars. Like baseball managers, county administrators often have short expiration dates. LaSala has hit his, and he and the commission should arrange for a tidy exit.