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Pinellas commissioners fire administrator LaSala

CLEARWATER - The great recession was just beginning to bite when Bob LaSala was appointed Pinellas County administrator in 2008.

His focus for four years was how to maintain essential services while being forced to cut hundreds of employees and deal with the loss of tens of millions of dollars in property tax revenue.

His leadership in those austere years earned him praise from commissioners. But as the county emerged from recession, LaSala’s sometimes caustic leadership style soured relations with key county partners, including hospitals, non-profits and fire departments. Administrative missteps that put at risk funding for indigent healthcare and availability of beds for Baker-acted patients further eroded commissioners’ confidence in their top administrator.

So with virtually no discussion, Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday parted company with their top executive, voting unanimously to fire LaSala, who, through his attorney, agreed that he would not dispute his dismissal.

“It was a cascading of events,” Commissioner Ken Welch said. “Those things kind of signaled an environment of conflict and the board wants to move to an environment of collaboration.”

Commissioners were scheduled to discuss LaSala’s future in light of mostly lukewarm and scathing annual evaluations from most of the seven-member commission. But as agreed with LaSala’s attorney, Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel instead called for a motion to terminate LaSala without cause and said there would be no discussion of his performance.

After the vote, LaSala read from a prepared statement before leaving the dais and, soon after, the building.

“It is with mixed emotions I leave my position as Pinellas County administrator,” LaSala said. “It has been an honor to serve this community.”

Seel said she would appoint Deputy County Administrator Mark Woodard as interim leader to work with LaSala during his 90 day’s notice. Woodard took LaSala’s place at the dais on Wednesday.

Because he was fired without cause, LaSala will receive 20 weeks of severance pay severance pay and benefits, which would add up to about $92,000 in salary and car allowance. He also has accrued roughly $40,250 in unused sick and vacation leave, according to the county’s human resources department.

His original contract guaranteed him six month’s severance pay but it was amended last year to comply with a new state law limiting payouts to top public officials.

LaSala worked in local government for roughly four decades primarily in Florida and California, and served as chief assistant county administrator in Pinellas for 10 years, according to a biography on the Pinellas County government website.

He said he was proud of the work he did downsizing county government and the positive attitude to county government from residents as reflected in a recent residents’ survey.

“I am particularly gratified to leave Pinellas County in far better economic position than when I arrived,” he said.

Adept at handling the county’s budget, LaSala’s communications and inter-personal skills were poor, several commissioners said in their evaluations. They also pointed to a pattern of him leading the county into conflict with service providers and other local governments.

The county had to get assistance from Hillsborough County and Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs to solve a staffing crisis in its veteran’s services offices that led to veterans waiting weeks for help with disability claims.

The county also clashed with fire departments and cities over attempts to lower costs for 911 emergency services. In one heated meeting, LaSala pointed out to commissioners that the fire chiefs speaking at the meeting were neither “elected nor decision makers.” He swiftly apologized.

Last week, commissioners learned that an administrative mix up with BayCare Health System led to the county missing out on $8 million of matching state money for care of poor and uninsured residents. About 10 percent of that money would have come back to the county.

The most recent example was news that Pinellas again has refused to pay property taxes on well fields it owns in Pasco County, an issue that commissioners had asked to be resolved.

Commissioner Janet Long said the county now needs an administrator who can help resolve its toughest issues, such as its dispute with Pinellas cities and fire districts over 911 medical costs.

“In this next chapter of county government, we need a more collaborative, consensus building kind of personality to move us though the big issues we’re facing right now,” Long said.

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