Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala makes a statement after being terminated by the commission April 15.
CLEARWATER - The first clue that something was awry came from media reports about less-than-satisfactory reviews given during an annual performance review.
Then Commission Chair Karen Seel removed the review of Pinellas County’s administrator from the April 15 meeting agenda and later replaced it.
The first item of business at that meeting was unanimous approval of Bob LaSala’s termination. Commissioner Norm Roche was not at the table during the vote.
Commission Chair Karen Seel began by asking if a commissioner would make a motion to terminate LaSala’s contract without cause. She said the contract called for a 90-day notice provision. She said during those 90 days, LaSala would report to her or her designee for assigned duties.
Commissioner Ken Welch made the motion. Commissioner Janet Long seconded it.
Welch thanked LaSala for his service.
“But I think this is an appropriate step forward,” he said.
LaSala thanked the commission for the opportunity to serve Pinellas County.
“It is with mixed emotions I leave my position as Pinellas County Administrator,” he said. “Please know that has been an honor to serve this community.”
He thanked the commission for “recognition of my financial management acumen, and I am particularly gratified that I leave Pinellas County in far better economic condition than when I arrived,” he said.
“As you know, I am not one to shy away from our biggest, most important community issues,” he continued. “And while I believe we have made progress on the very tough issues related to emergency medical services and health and community services, I recognize that those incremental accomplishments have not been without controversy.
“That said, they are incredibly important matters to our community, and I wish you all the success in resolving them and moving forward positively as I hand the baton to your next leader. Of course, I will always be available to help you in any way I can.”
Hired during a time of controversy
Perhaps the most-respected administrator in the county’s recent history passed the baton to LaSala in 2008. Fred Marquis served Pinellas County as its administrator from 1979 to 2000. He returned in an interim capacity in 2007 after former administrator Steve Spratt resigned in the aftermath of a grand jury investigation of a land deal between former property appraiser Jim Smith and the county.
Marquis strongly endorsed LaSala for the job, in part due to his prior experience working for county government. LaSala worked as chief assistant county administrator and assistant county administrator from 1979 to 1989.
He returned to Pinellas from California, where he managed cities for 10 years. He now has served counties and cities for more than 40 years, including more than 23 years in Florida. His governmental career started in New York and New Jersey.
During meeting on Sept. 9, 2008, when the commission approved his initial contract, he vowed to provide a “proactive commitment to professional management.”
“Being a good leader means you have to have followers,” LaSala said.
At the time, Seel asked him to describe what he thought were some of the county’s opportunities for improvement.
“I believe you don’t have to be sick to get better,” LaSala said.
He said while Pinellas was “pretty healthy,” it would be tested in the coming months in terms of resources. He said some of the continuing challenges would be setting priorities for services and the ability to respond to changes.
“My job for the next few months will be to do a lot of listening,” he said.
After only two months on the job, LaSala told members of the Rotary Club of Seminole Lake at a December meeting that the county would be faced with major decisions about its EMS system and budget. He was right.
In the end, one of those issues garnered him praise, the second, the EMS controversy, may have helped cost him his job.
Falling review scores
In 2012, LaSala received a composite score of almost 81 percent on his annual review. His high score was for preparation and administering of the budget, 3.64 out of 4. His next highest grades were for integrity, getting 3.5 for his overall integrity and 3.57 for his personal integrity. His low score was 2.71 for facilitative leadership and facilitating county board effectiveness.
In 2013, his composite score was down to 74 percent, representing the highs and lows in seven categories. His high score was for organization, planning and management with an average rating of 3.29 out of 3.5. He scored 3.25 for strategic leadership, 3.17 for integrity, 3.02 for service delivery management, 2.83 for responsiveness, 2.70 for communication. His lowest score, 2.52, was for policy facilitation.
Welch, who was chair at the time, gave LaSala a low score – needs attention – in the area of facilitative leadership. And he marked needs attention to satisfactory on LaSala’s mediation and negotiation skills. The rest of his evaluation showed good to excellent scores.
Commissioner Susan Latvala gave LaSala good or excellent scores in nearly every category. Commissioner John Morroni was the only commissioner to give the administrator a perfect score – excellent in every area.
Long mostly gave the administrator satisfactory scores. She circled needs attention in the areas of responsiveness advocacy, media relations and interpersonal communication. She marked good for budgeting, financial analysis, strategic planning and presentation skills.
Commissioner Charlie Justice scored LaSala as satisfactory to excellent in every category, with excellent marks for function/operational expertise, operational planning, initiative and risk taking, budgeting and integrity.
Seel gave the administrator the most points for satisfactory performance, marking excellent for his technological literacy only.
Roche found nothing excellent about LaSala’s work in 2013, nor did he mark anything as needing attention, although he did create a new spot between needs attention, the bottom of the scale, and satisfactory, for several of his answers.
In 2014, LaSala’s composite score fell to 70 percent. Seel marked needs attention, the lowest grade, on nearly every area except vision, presentation skills and media relations, which she marked as satisfactory. She marked good for technological literacy, budgeting and financial analysis.
Susan Latvala was more generous in her scores, giving LaSala and excellent or good in every category. She did remark under vision that LaSala “does an excellent job within the organization – not as well with community.” She also said he needed “to practice presenting at a level that everyone can understand.”
While Morroni did not give LaSala a perfect score, he gave him more excellent marks other commissioners. He marked good for facilitative leadership, remarking that the outcome of the EMS debate would be an indicator. He also marked good for mediation/negotiation, commenting, “Sometimes it doesn’t come out as ‘neutral’ all the time.” He also marked good for citizen service.
He thanked LaSala for his hard work and dedication.
“It seems we are finally tackling some tough issues with the support of the majority of the board,” he wrote.
Justice scored LaSala as satisfactory, good or excellent in his responses. He included written comments stating that the “administrator has done an outstanding job maintaining the machinations of the county functions during a time of slow economic recovery and structural transition.”
“There are some areas of concern; challenges that exist,” he wrote. “The administrator needs to improve communication. Communication to the external communities that show respect for the validity of others’ opinions; communication with staff that shows that change is made with purpose and intent and not for the sake of change; and communication with the Board to better align the goals and plans both short term and long term.
“Recent circumstances with the EMS issue, the strategic planning and the healthy communities discussions exposed areas in need of greater attention in order for greater successes.”
Long scored LaSala between satisfactory and excellent and included comments on most pages. She said he could do a “better job of building partnerships and/or meeting with community groups in order to continue relationships the county has taken decades to develop.”
“Bob has a stubborn streak that interferes with his good judgment,” she wrote. “Bob must work on his demeanor during public meetings to insure respect and civility towards our citizens, as well as the elected officials.”
She praised him for his work in organizational planning and management.
“Bob does an outstanding job with strategic short and long range planning,” she wrote. “His commitment and dedication to financial stability is outstanding.”
Welch scored LaSala as satisfactory, good or excellent in every area except organizational integrity, which he marked between needs attention and satisfactory.
“I’m concerned with the loss of key personnel and the impact of personnel decisions on internal and external relationships and collaboration,” Welch wrote. “I am also increasingly concerned with the number of ongoing conflicts and/or disputes with key community partners … collaboration with our partners is a priority.”
He praised the administrator for his strategic planning, the county’s website and the use of eTownHall meetings for citizen interaction.
“Budget and forecasting are excellent,” he wrote. “Strategic planning implementation depends on collaboration, staff retention and communication.”
Roche had little good to say about LaSala. His scores mirrored Seel’s with most coming in somewhere between needs attention and satisfactory. He did mark good for function/operational expertise, and a spot between good and excellent for technological literacy.
Roche’s typed comments were among the most scathing. He listed a number of problems with how the administrator has performed his job and his understanding of the county’s citizens. He said LaSala “appears to favor a conspiratorial ‘us versus them’ environment, frustrates easily when questioned, often rejects and rebuts opposing or differing viewpoints and/or alternative approaches, and tends to dismiss or obfuscate rather than consider and incorporate.”
He listed several issues, including downtown Palm Harbor, the Pinellas County Library Cooperative, EMS, fire services, indigent care contracts, animal services, stormwater and citizen interactions, as having been handled in a spirit of “divide and conquer rather than coalesce and achieve.”
He also expressed concern about “a pattern of discarding the value of institutional experience and knowledge, in favor of outside hiring and promotion.”
Seel said she would begin work immediately to appoint a designee for LaSala to report to and make plans for beginning a search for a new administrator. She did not share any additional information. Assistant County Administrator Mark Woodard served in the administrator’s role during the Tuesday meeting.
Before leaving that meeting, LaSala said he was proud of the county’s employees.
“This is a terrific group of employees who try to do their very best each and every day, and I sincerely thank them,” he said. “Further, I would also be remiss if I did not personally acknowledge by executive staff, and I include those who have been reassigned as well. Each of those individuals brought very real talent and a true commitment to public service. I thank them as well.
“Again, it has been my privilege to serve as your administrator.”