CLEARWATER — After a four-month audition as interim county administrator, Mark Woodard has got the part.
Without interviewing another candidate, Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to abandon their national search for a new county administrator and gave the job to Woodard, a 26-year county employee.
More than 50 executives applied for the position. But commissioners said Woodard wowed them in his brief stint in charge and that none of the other candidates could match his experience and institutional knowledge. They also were swayed by emails sent by county workers praising Woodard and calling on them to give him the job.
“I don’t ever recall having a relationship when I felt so confident in the information I was being given,” Commissioner Susan Latvala said. “We didn’t know we had such a talented and capable individual under our roof. Over these short months working with him my impression has changed dramatically.”
Woodard, 56, was named interim county administrator in April after commissioners fired Bob LaSala. Board Chairwoman Karen Seel will enter into negotiations with Woodard to finalize his compensation package. Woodard said he is happy to continue working without a contract and will not seek perks that other county employees do not receive. In his application, he requested his salary stay at $199,500, the amount commissioners awarded him as interim administrator.
“I’m humbled by your kind words and the confidence you’ve exhibited in me and the team,” he said. “We’re going to work every day to do things and serve the public.”
Married to former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, Woodard joined the county in 1988 as a senior management financial analyst. He also worked as director of the Office of Management and Budget and in 2005 was promoted to assistant county administrator.
He applied for the county administrator position in 2008 at a time when Iorio was still in office. He withdrew his application after commissioners expressed concern that Woodard does not live in Pinellas. Residency is not a requirement of a county administrator, but there is a sentiment that administrators should live and pay taxes in the community they run. Woodard plans to remain living in his home close to Gandy Boulevard, about two miles from the Pinellas boundary.
“I think having just turned 56 and spent over 26 years of professional career in Pinellas County, I think I can say I spent more waking hours in Pinellas than Hillsborough County,” he said.
Since stepping in as interim administrator, Woodard tackled several thorny issues for the county, including an unusual weekend meeting with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman to resolve a dispute over funding for emergency medical services that seemed to be heading toward the courtroom. He said the county is close to an agreement with other EMS providers, including the city of Largo, which took the first step toward suing the county.
“It was clear that the confrontational manner we had approaching the cities was not working, so we took a different tack and treated them as partners,” Woodard said.
He also addressed the staffing crisis at the county’s veterans’ services offices that led to veterans complaining about the poor service, allocating additional staff in his first budget and rearranging department structure to make the office’s director report directly to his new Interim Chief of Staff Bruce Moeller.
His first budget included savings of $1.2 million from canceling contracts with consulting firms, a show of faith in county staff who Woodard said had the skills to do the work just as well.
His calm, genial leadership style has been a welcome change for commissioners still jarred by LaSala’s caustic, combative approach, which they cited in his their decision to fire him.
“I have two words to describe Mark Woodard: that is total professional,” Commissioner John Morroni said.
Woodard also has shown a tough streak by sending beleaguered former director of health and human services Gwen Warren to work out her final weeks in the county’s employment at St. Petersburg College.
Although they supported the appointment, commissioners Charlie Justice and Norm Roche expressed concern about the fairness of the process and that the county had abandoned its search midstream.
Commissioners held a discussion about abandoning the search and hiring Woodard a couple of weeks before the application deadline. That may have deterred some candidates yet to apply. Typically many applicants wait until close to the deadline to apply because applications often are made public.
“That process got a little sidetracked,” Justice said. “There are some good applicants that would have done a good job on any other even playing field.”
Woodard’s appointment is likely to be followed by a review of the county’s strategic plans. After several years of layoffs and budget cuts, he said the county needs to refocus on serving its residents and customers.
He said he favors a straightforward, common sense approach and has made changes in keeping with that, such as renaming the confusingly titled Strategic Planning and Initiatives Office where builders file site plans and zoning applications. It’s now called Planning and Development.
“First and foremost, I believe in the county’s vision of working to set the standard for public service in America,” he said. “That is a unifying vision that resonates with our staff and is inspirational.”