Pasco commissioners have pushed aside the status quo — sort of. In picking a self-described change agent as the next Pasco County administrator — Tomas "Tommy'' Gonzalez, city manager of Irving, Texas — commissioners bypassed their own second-in-command, chief assistant county administrator Michele Baker. Yet, they offered her the title of interim administrator, a pay raise, and a promise they would encourage Gonzalez to keep her as the top deputy.
A commission majority of Kathryn Starkey, Henry Wilson and Jack Mariano found Gonzalez' track record in Texas to be superior to Baker's outstanding performance in Pasco. It was an odd juxtaposition. Wilson previously dismissed the credentials of all the applicants as lacking and Mariano has worked in close tandem with Baker on his pet project — the county park at SunWest Harbourtowne. In the end, however, they bowed to the attraction of a charismatic outsider and to the behind-the-scenes lobbying from some members of Pasco's development community who wanted a new face.
Commission Chairman Ted Schrader and Baker's biggest ally, Commissioner Pat Mulieri, acquiesced to the majority and a unanimous board agreed last week to offer the job to Gonzalez. If a contract agreement can be reached, Gonzalez will become Pasco's first new county administrator since John Gallagher was hired in 1982.
The to-do list for Gonzalez, if he accepts, will be lengthy, but one of the initial chores will be navigating the peculiarities of Florida's Constitution. It limits the property tax revenue local governments can collect from homeowners and sets its sheriff and other elected offices as stand-alone operations funded from the same general revenue budget. Check the current debate over an expanded jail versus a new criminal courthouse as proof of these competing interests.
Depending on the start date, the new administrator could be tasked immediately with helping to settle that dispute; selling the public (and the people who hired him) on a proposed gasoline tax increase; rebuilding an internal staff losing its budget director and assistant county administrator for development services; and negotiating with a private vendor for a planned sports/tourism park in Wesley Chapel. Long-term assignments will be the continued push for a better east-west road network, diversifying the local economy by attracting higher-wage jobs to the county, and redeveloping the aging west Pasco corridor.
The new administrator also will answer to a commission comprised of individual members who can bounce from reasonable, thoughtful debates to votes guided by ideological demagoguery, political pandering and parochialism. But he will head a quality staff that helped guide the commission to devise a strategic plan and to develop a vision that stretches beyond the next election cycle.
The retiring Gallagher correctly characterized Pasco as a county poised to bloom economically. In that regard, the next administrator and the commission who hired him, will be judged on the size and duration of that bloom.