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Manager resigns with lessons

On Friday, which is three years, six months and 14 days since he took on the unenviable job of running Hillsborough County government, Larry Brown will leave it. In that time, he says, he has learned some things.

One: Trust must be won early. If it isn't, there is no second chance.

Two: You can tilt at certain windmills all you want, but you won't win.

And three: If you are going to be Hillsborough County administrator, make sure severance pay is in your contract.

Having followed the rocky history of the county's past managers, Brown knew that last bit of wisdom before he arrived. So when his resignation becomes effective Friday, Brown will have nearly $130,000 in salary and benefits to tide him over while he considers which direction his career will take.

Learning the other axioms took more time and trouble for the 50-year-old manager, who came to Hillsborough in 1987 with a unanimous mandate for change and resigned three weeks ago under pressure from a government wracked by conflict.

"The reason I took this job was because nobody else had been able to convert it into a success," Brown said recently as he reflected on his tenure. "I think I've partially done that, but even I couldn't do what was totally necessary to do the job."

Nevertheless, Brown said he thinks that even with the conflict, the criticism and the problems that kept popping up like weeds in a garden, a lot of good was accomplished.

Brown, a quiet but towering man who likes to play the keyboard on piano and computer, has spent recent days cataloging his accomplishments as county administrator as well as thinking about what he might have done differently.

According to Brown's computer calendar that tracks every moment of his time, he spent 11,210.5 hours on the job _ or about 5.4 standard work years in 3.5 years' worth of time, Brown said.

He calls the job his most challenging professional endeavor, but he acknowledges that some of his own actions might have helped shorten its lifespan.

"I did not spend enough time with individual board members early enough or consistently enough in order for them to develop a trust," Brown said. Instead, he says he went to work "flattening" a bureaucracy he described as "stacked up like 15 waffles on a plate."

While he was at it, morale plummeted, commissioners got mad and Brown never tried to explain why he chose to make changes the way he did.

"I went right to the bowels of this organization and started rebuilding it from the bottom up. But I think that was the price I paid. I went so deep into the organization I became invisible to the board for all intents and purposes," Brown said.

By the time commissioners opened his eyes during an evaluation and told him they weren't happy with his communication skills, Brown said, it was too late.

"It seems like even though I recognized that after a year or so, the die had been cast," Brown said. "At that point it wouldn't have mattered how much time I spent."

Some commissioners who lost confidence in Brown's performance said it had as much to do with competence as communication. And Brown's style _ apolitical and low-key _ frustrated some commissioners who wanted him to offer more forceful recommendations and have a better understanding of the community's political pulse.

But the 25-year professional manager has a clear definition of what his role should be, and it shows when he describes what he is most proud of.

He cites internal organizational changes that no taxpayer ever sees except, Brown maintains, in the form of improved services. He says he gets satisfaction from flattening those bureaucratic waffles, empowering employees to make decisions and making government more professional.

A final performance report he prepared last week lists about 80 programs and projects from sewer systems to affirmative action that Brown counts as achievements.

But many of those same items, including minority business assistance programs and road construction, became sources of conflict between Brown and the commission. By this fall, they were too many and too frequent to overcome.

The differences between him and some of his bosses led to vocal and mostly one-sided criticism. Brown says friends and advisers told him he should fight back, to act like a political equal with the commissioners who were faulting his performance.

But he says he followed the path that had served him well for two decades in government: Keep quiet. Even now, with ties nearly broken, his criticism is tempered.

When asked, he says, "I think I was treated unfairly by the board ... especially in terms of things over which I had no control and they knew it. But that being said, that's part of the game. That's part of the system."

There has been much debate during Brown's tenure about whether it was personalities, or the system itself, that caused so much turmoil in county government. Some people maintain that the growing and diverse county needs a strong mayor, a political focal point, instead of one professional administrator beholden to seven bosses.

Brown, who has built his career on the success of the council-manager form of government, says he cannot predict its future in Hillsborough.

Considering the influence of the city of Tampa, the historical problems with administrators and the lack of a full community commitment to the format, Brown says, "I don't know if anybody can make the council-manager plan work here. I couldn't, and that's all I can really say for sure."

Given the right people and the right commitment, he says, the administrator's job can be done. But during his time here, he adds, "I revisited my Don Quixote book. Some windmills just can't be beat. Many can, but some can't."

Brown is preparing for big changes. Not since leaving his first county manager job 20 years ago has he been out of a job without already being signed on to another.

He says he is interested in staying in Tampa or Florida and is exploring management opportunities in the business community as well as government. He may do some consulting in areas such as automation or productivity programs. But right now, he says, he has no prospects.

Not being a government manager will mean adjustments everywhere.

Larry Brown _ lover of automation, dyed-in-the-wool technocrat _ only recently bought his own home computer. Until now, he always required that one be supplied by the county he worked for as part of his employment contract. But he's turning in his laptop along with his office keys.

As for any future challenge-seekers who think they can do in Hillsborough County what others have not, Brown has some advice.

First and foremost, he says, "get an iron-clad employment agreement." Then get an up-front understanding of what the commission wants from its administrator. Then try to build a strong personal relationship with commissioners while maintaining professional integrity.

Then, says Brown, "be prepared for a wild, wild ride."