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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2018
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Pinellas commissioners slam county administrator

CLEARWATER — Bob La­Sala’s future as county administrator is in jeopardy following a series of scathing evaluations from some county commissioners.

In their annual assessment of his performance, commissioners said LaSala has led the county into too many crises and conflicts with other local governments and agencies. La­Sala also was criticized for his communication and interpersonal skills.

This week, Commission Chairman Karen Seel sent a voice message to other commissioners that she had discussed LaSala’s evaluations with the county attorney and was pulling a scheduled discussion of his performance from Tuesday’s meeting “in lieu of other options.”

Asked whether LaSala’s future is in question, Seel said, “It’s possible.”

“It depends on each commissioner’s evaluation with Bob,” she said. “Until we get to a public meeting, we won’t know what direction it’s going to go in.”

In the past 15 months, commissioners have expressed frustration as several crises became public embarrassments.

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

The county has 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.

Another dispute was with Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, which refused to renew a contract to treat poor and uninsured residents after the county slashed its funding because its count showed the hospital was treating fewer patients. The count was inaccurate. Commissioners later restored the funding.

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 funds for care of poor and uninsured residents. About 10 percent of that money would have come back to the county.

There also has been some turnover of top staff, with department heads for health and human services and animal services among those to depart.

Commissioner Ken Welch said there had been a pattern of conflict and that commissioners were not always kept apprised of county business. The most recent example was when he read a news story that Pinellas has again refused to pay property taxes on well fields it owns in Pasco County.

“That was an issue we’d given direction to come back with some options on,” Welch said. “We are spending a lot of time and energy on issues that could have been settled with better collaboration and communication.”

LaSala could not be reached for comment Friday.

The most critical evaluation came from Commissioner Norm Roche, who gave LaSala the lowest possible mark for negotiation skills, service to citizens and “facilitating County Board effectiveness.” Many of the other scores he awarded were below or at satisfactory.

“We need to bring some stability to our services, employees and entire operations,” Roche said. “It’s pretty clear there is a considerable amount of instability. We’ve been in turmoil far too long.”

Commissioners Susan Latvala, who is stepping down in November, John Morroni and Charlie Justice gave LaSala glowing evaluations, although Justice awarded only moderate scores for LaSala’s presentation and interpersonal communication.

LaSala, who is paid about $231,000, joined Pinellas in October 2008.

He has worked in local government for 35 years, 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.

Like many top administrators who answer only to elected officials, he has experience of falling out of favor with those who hire and fire him.

LaSala was forced to resign as Boca Raton city manager in 1991 after 23 months following a series of missteps, according to a report in the Sun Sentinel.

His six-year tenure as city manager in Sunnyvale, Calif., ended after he lost support from a majority of city council in 2004.

His most recent struggle was in Lancaster, Calif., in 2007 when he resigned after three years as city manager.

Citing tension with the board and saying he was unable to heal that breach, he said was in the best interest of the community for him to resign, according to city records.

Seel, who voted against hiring LaSala in 2008, said that he would likely meet with commissioners Monday to go through his evaluations.

She said she is still working on her evaluation and has some concerns to discuss with him.

But she did praise him for his handling of the county during the recent recession, when the county lost millions of dollars in property taxes.

“During a great recession, he was a person to lead us through those times,” she said.

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