One of the strengths Bob LaSala will bring to his new job as Pinellas County administrator is familiarity with the geography. He worked for Pinellas from 1979 to 1989, much of that time as chief assistant county administrator. He told the St. Petersburg Times that while he needs to inform himself about some recent Pinellas issues, "the generic concerns appear to be very similar to what they were when I was here."
Actually, that's not quite right. LaSala, 59, has worked in California for years, so he may be unaware that there has been a big change in the Pinellas political landscape over nearly two decades. He also may not know that residents' expectations of their county government have undergone a metamorphosis.
When LaSala left Pinellas, the Pinellas County Commission had only five members and no single-member districts. The county's business was conducted with little concern for transparency. Residents of the unincorporated area demanded little of a government they considered distant, perhaps even irrelevant. The top issues in the county courthouse were growth — primarily, how to encourage it — and unrelenting traffic congestion.
When LaSala steps into the top job next month, he will discover a few things have changed. He will have seven commission bosses rather than five, four of them elected by single-member districts. Thanks to e-mail, Web sites and streaming video, Pinellas residents are better informed about county government and demand more from it. For example, a library cooperative ensures that residents of the unincorporated area have access to libraries, and the county has been forced to address residents' demands for recreational facilities. An upstart environmental movement has hammered county officials when they lacked sensitivity to environmental concerns. The county's too-quiet purchase of the property appraiser's private land has ratcheted up the public's insistence on transparency.
LaSala will return to a county that is built out, suffering from the consequences of poorly planned growth moving into its redevelopment phase — with, residents hope, better planning and a greater emphasis on quality of life. LaSala will find that the county has made enormous progress in addressing its traffic nightmares, thanks to the Penny for Pinellas sales tax and state and federal dollars, but still has work to do.
County government has some other priorities that were not on the agenda during LaSala's earlier tenure. They include promoting construction of affordable housing, grappling with declining revenues, propping up tourism in a down economy and sheltering the homeless.
One important issue will be familiar. When he left Pinellas in 1989, Tropicana Field was under construction, built to lure a baseball team. Pinellas eventually got its team, but now it is facing another stadium debate.
Managing Pinellas is both more complex and more nuanced than in 1989. As LaSala returns home, he will need all of the leadership skills he has acquired over the years to help lead a county that is quite different from the one he left.