The search for a chief deputy to powerful County Administrator John Gallagher dances around a four-letter word.
That would be "heir" to Gallagher, a title not in the job description but in the thoughts of some commissioners, if not Gallagher.
Gallagher has suggested his tenure, which started in 1982, might end within five years. He has three years left on his current contract, and Gallagher, 59, said last week he intends to seek only a one- or two-year contract when it is up.
Many of his top brass have served closely with him for a long time, and their careers could sunset with Gallagher's. In fact, as of last week, none have applied to be his chief deputy.
Ultimately, the top deputy could become more than the front-runner to be Pasco's next county administrator. The person could open a new era in the county's leadership, creating a landmark shift because of Gallagher's long, tight control of county government.
Gallagher said he is merely looking for someone qualified to stand in for him and help oversee county departments, and "definitely not an heir apparent."
After all, no one wants to make themselves a lame duck - though Gallagher dismisses that as a consideration. He said no employee would work outside his control.
"Nobody operates independently of me, rule No. 1," he said.
Gallagher has taken decades building that kind of authority, having longevity rare in the upper reaches of government. He knows many of Pasco's key players, whether he is planning a new road, picking park locations or dangling incentives to prospective employers. He often deals behind the scenes on details that add up to major decisions in Pasco's quality of life.
Gallagher, who was hired after being New Port Richey's city manager, helped clean up a scandal-ridden government. In the process, he fended off some commissioners' attempts to curb his power. During that time, he had a chief deputy to oversee services. But the last one, Bill Munz, stepped down in May 2001 because of health problems.
Gallagher said he did not hire another one because he wanted to make changes to different programs. He took over Munz's seat on the Development Review Committee, for example, and melded policies to improve neighborhood designs by including better combinations of everyday businesses and homes, he said.
Now that he made changes, Gallagher said he could assign the chief assistant to his place on the committee. That's one reason his new deputy needs to be able to grasp how those tasks get done.
But commissioners also are forcing the issue. The hiring has become more urgent to several commissioners as the county struggles to keep a lid on recent problems, such as utility breakdowns and growth management.
Having another top administrator could have pre-empted damaging water and sewer failures that prompted up to $1.8-million in possible state fines, commissioners said. While Gallagher does well, commissioners Ann Hildebrand and Ted Schrader said, he can't focus on everything that needs doing.
"We have told him and told him and told him, and at some point, we're going to say, 'Look, make a choice,' " Commissioner Pat Mulieri said of Gallagher hiring an assistant.
All five commissioners suggested the "heir" moniker should at least be earned first - but being good enough to become county administrator would be a plus in the new top deputy.
"That would be the ideal," said Commissioner Jack Mariano, who wants someone hired with utility experience. "But if we can find a very qualified person who can work, that would be OK."
The decision, however, is Gallagher's to make. The commissioners approve hiring the county administrator and county attorney. Gallagher and his staff hire everyone else.
To fill the post, Gallagher said he wants to interview some of the several dozen qualified applicants in the next two months. More than 140 people have applied.
The most high-profile internal applicant is engineering program manager Michele Baker, the former emergency management director installed by Gallagher in March 2005 to help plan and complete road and drainage projects more efficiently. Her work landed compliments from Schrader.
Other Tampa Bay area applicants include Hillsborough County's budget director Eric Johnson and Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority comptroller Lynne Paul.
Lest they size a special someone's office for drapes, however, commissioners Mulieri and Michael Cox said it will be worth Pasco's time to look outside the county to hire the next county administrator. Mulieri suggested a national search. Cox also would like Gallagher to look closely for a top assistant from outside Pasco to get a fresh perspective.
"You've got to wait and see what kind of fit ... he or she is," Hildebrand said.
David DeCamp covers can be reached at (727) 869-6232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.