NEW PORT RICHEY — Six months after her appointment as Pasco County administrator, Michele Baker is changing the culture of a county government that has been viewed by many as a good old boys’ club.
She replaced County Administrator John Gallagher, who retired in May after 33 years at the helm.
“John and I were a good team when we were together because we shared a commitment to Pasco County, and we shared core values,” she said. “But ... we had very different management styles.”
Baker said she’s more collaborative by nature and wanted her leadership team to be inclusive. She wanted to empower her staff to make decisions and to take more risks.
“It’s scary to be innovative,” she said. “If you’re innovative and you make a mistake, we shouldn’t punish that. We should learn from it and do it better next time.”
Baker thinks women in management bring different skills to the table. They’re better multitaskers, she said, and can be better collaborators. “People can learn these things. It can be taught,” she said. “I know some amazing male leaders who are very collaborative.”
Baker isn’t the only new face at the top levels of county government. Two of her three assistant county administrators are women; like Baker, they both replaced men who had held their positions for more than 30 years.
Heather Grimes succeeded Mike Nurrenbrock as assistant administrator for internal services. Grimes, who came from the male-dominated world of information technology, said she doesn’t pay attention to gender roles.
She’s the family breadwinner, and her husband manages the house and cares for their two kids.
Suzanne Salichs took over the public services division after Dan Johnson retired and now oversees more than 400 employees, including parks, animal services and fire rescue departments.
Though both were hired under Gallagher’s watch, Baker played a key role in their selection. “Both of those were different,” Baker said. “Heather was a known entity. Everything John and I had asked her to do, she’d done an outstanding job. So she was a logical choice.”
To replace Johnson, they wanted someone who had the same “passion for public service” as well as expertise in a few of the departments that fall under public services. Salichs’ community development background fit the bill.
“Dan had an accounting background,” Salichs said. “He called himself a bean counter. I’m not a bean counter.”
Baker also tapped women as directors of the county’s budget office and its community services division, and she promoted longtime staffer Ed Caum to lead the county’s tourism office. During the next few months, she expects to round out her leadership team with a new chief assistant, a development services administrator and the county’s first full-time public information officer.
Baker said that to change the culture in county government she had to start with changing the attitude management had toward its employees. It goes beyond pay raises, which county employees received this year after going five years without. She made it a priority to reward employees for good work. As administrator, she held “listening sessions” with each county department to hear their ideas and their gripes.
“She’s genuinely trying to do the best she can for the employees,” said Bruce Kennedy, the assistant county administrator for utilities.