BELLEAIR — For the second time in six weeks, the Belleair Town Commission held a special meeting on a weekday afternoon to discuss filling the town manager’s position in the wake of a sudden resignation.

And for the third time in two months, a different face will occupy the office, as the commission on May 25 selected Gay Lancaster to replace Belleair Police Chief Rick Doyle as the interim town manager, a role Doyle agreed to fill following the sudden resignation of former Town Manager JP Murphy in April.

The unanimous decision to go with the longtime Belleair resident Lancaster over three other impressively credentialed candidates — former Madeira Beach City Manager Robert Daniels, former Pinellas Park Assistant City Manager Lisa Hendrickson, and former Tarpon Springs Police Chief Robert Kochen — came down to three things, according to Mayor Mike Wilkinson. 

“One (candidate) that sticks out to me is Gay Lancaster because of the fact she is very familiar with the town, she does not want the position permanently, and I think she would be a great asset to us moving forward in a lot of ways, one of which would be to help us look for our next permanent town manager,” Wilkinson said, adding he believed they were “fortunate to have four great candidates.” 

The other two commissioners in attendance, Coleen Chaney and Thomas Nessler, as well as the two participating via Zoom, Tom Kurey and Tom Shelly, agreed, and following a brief discussion, they unanimously decided to hire Lancaster as a consultant for a fee of $10,000 per month and agreed to approve the terms of the deal during their next scheduled commission meeting Tuesday, June 21. 

When Wilkinson asked if she could start tomorrow, Lancaster replied, “I live here … so yes, I’ll be here!”

Belleair’s town manager carousel started to spin when the commission agreed in early March to conduct a review of the workplace culture following a spate of employee resignations, leading Murphy to suddenly resign. During a hastily called meeting, Doyle was appointed as interim town manager, agreeing to a salary increase of $6,000 per month, while officials began searching for a permanent replacement. By all accounts Doyle, who has an extensive business background, had begun to right the ship, working with department heads and staff to compile a list of priorities and start checking them off. In early May, the commission agreed to meet once a month to give Doyle time to get reorganized. 

But an email sent to the town last week highlighting a state attorney general’s opinion from 2006 regarding dual officeholding questioned whether Doyle should be allowed to hold both positions, leading the chief to relinquish the interim position rather than become a distraction and leaving town officials, once again, searching for stability. 

“This is not somewhere we thought we were going to be today,” Wilkinson told the crowd of roughly 30 at the start of the meeting. “I think that we had something great with Chief Doyle running the town. Obviously, we did have concerns from some residents, or a resident, and as (Town Attorney) Jay (Daigneault) mentioned, it’s probably more prudent to move in a different direction, so this is why we’re here. We need to move forward.”

Although all four candidates were highly regarded, Lancaster’s resume, which shows a near 40-year career working with government agencies including the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the County Administrator’s office, and the Juvenile Welfare Board, stood out. When questioning the candidates, Chaney noted Lancaster’s experience leading multiple agencies through transition and asked what her secret was. 

“It really isn’t a secret,” Lancaster replied. “I believe in calming the waters, because when you dive into rough seas, you have to figure out if anyone’s drowning, and often people are. And you find their strong points and who can help whom in the organization.”

To that point, Lancaster admitted she was reluctant at first to step in and replace Doyle because she knows how respected he is by staff. 

“I’m sorry the chief is not continuing, because he has done an amazing job and he has staff behind him, and I don’t want to disrupt that relationship or that loyalty,” she said after the hourlong meeting while receiving congratulatory handshakes from Kochen and Hendrickson. “But I really believe I can add to the equation. I really want to bring what I have to benefit the town. That’s my only goal.”

Wilkinson said he, too, was sorry Doyle had to step down, but he was happy to have Lancaster step in.

“I want to sincerely thank Chief Doyle for what he did for the town in the last five weeks,” Wilkinson said by phone the next day. “He’s a tremendous leader, very focused and dedicated to giving everyone his attention while handling his job as chief, and I’m glad to have him back as chief leading our department full time.”

As for Lancaster, the mayor said he got to know her the last year as she served on the finance board, a position she has since relinquished, and he believes her qualifications made her an ideal candidate.

“I think Gay Lancaster comes with great depth of experience in government and public service, and she doesn’t want the position full-time, so she will be able to help spearhead the search for a permanent replacement,” Wilkinson said, adding, “I think she’s going to be a great asset and benefit for all of us.”