Robert S. LaSala, ICMA-CM, is county administrator for Pinellas County, Florida, which has a budget of $1.8 billion and approximately 5,000 employees, 2,000 of whom are under the supervision of the county administrator. An urban/suburban county renowned for its beaches and arts communities, Pinellas is geographically the smallest county in the state and the most densely populated, with 900,000 residents populating a little more than 280 square miles. In Florida, services are countywide and concurrent with cities; Pinellas County serves residents in incorporated cities as well as those in unincorporated areas. The county includes 24 socioeconomically and demographically diverse cities, ranging from full-service St. Petersburg (pop. 250,000) to the town of Belleair Shore (pop. 109).
LaSala joined the Pinellas County staff around the time of the Great Recession. With plummeting property values, the county faced a severe structural imbalance between available revenues and the cost to provide county services, resulting in having to make painful decisions on staffing and service delivery, which caused LaSala many sleepless nights. Ultimately, the county cut $200 million from its general fund budget, restructured operations and service delivery, eliminated 1,700 positions, and laid off 1,000 county staff. These in combination led to a reduced level of service that was unacceptably low to the community so the commissioners voted to increase property taxes by 5% in 2013.
Coming out of the other side of the Great Recession into the new normal has led to new ways of doing business in Pinellas County, i.e., implementation of a multi-year financial forecasting model, a new approach to strategic planning, and adoption of the ICMA/CCHPO High Performance Organization model with an emphasis on continuous learning.
The county has implemented a sophisticated and complex financial forecasting model with a multi-year budget, which it continues to refine and improve. The new model empowers the board with better information and a platform from which they can link their decisions with long-term outcomes and financial impacts.
Also with the “new normal,” the board has undertaken a new approach to strategic planning. According to LaSala, “In a time of scarcity and finite resources, we must think differently with a more dynamic strategic plan that ties into our financial plans and program-oriented budgeting, and one that we revisit multiple times during course of the year. The board now thinks in terms of how financial decisions will affect the organization and the community in the long term… and they’re bringing up these issues, not me. It’s now their forecast and approach to the budget, not mine.”
LaSala notes the county’s new focus on continuous learning. Pinellas County has adopted John Pickering’s high performance organization diagnostic/change model, which the board has embraced and which is catching on with staff. One of the key strategies of the model is pushing responsibility/accountability/authority down into the lowest levels of the organization. By engaging staff in the fate of the organization through day-to-day decision making, the staff increasingly connects the dots between the strategic plan, strategic initiatives, and continuous learning. He recognizes this change can be uncomfortable for some who profit from the old order, but “we’re changing the way we do business and it’s catching on.” LaSala quotes Wayne Dyer who said “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” “If we can create an organization where my colleagues and I are doing that – on the internal side with our focus on higher performance, outcomes, and results, the services will be what the community wants and expects and will also be aligned with the board’s strategic plan.
Challenges to the Profession
LaSala considers the policy versus administration dichotomy that John Nalbandian has described as one of our biggest challenges. Roles get blurred as our elected officials seek to demonstrate their accountability to the citizens and staff plays a larger role in shaping policy in a time of greater complexity.
He also cites the need to instill trust/confidence/transparency/vision in the governance process and government at all levels, but especially at the local level. “Local governments are the first line of defense to which residents look for public services they can’t provide for themselves. Our residents want government that works and is understandable. They want to get up in the morning, turn on the water, and know it will be clean; to get their kids to school and themselves to their places of business, and the transportation/traffic systems will work. They want to be able to call 911 and get timely support from Fire/EMS. They want these services to be reliable, consistent, and predictable.”
LaSala is a passionate believer of ICMA’s advocacy for professional local governance and a generous supporter of the Fund for Professional Management. “ICMA advocacy helps clarify the council-manager value proposition and explain the synergy that comes from strong, proactive political leadership coupled with strong, proactive professional managers. My support of ICMA is the one way I can reach out beyond my own community and region in helping to make the council-manager form visible and viable.”
Advice to the Next Generation
Reflecting on nearly 40 years in service to local government, LaSala feels a sense of accomplishment, but still enjoys the challenges inherent in the profession and the opportunity to make a difference. Offering his experience to young professionals, emerging professionals, and growing professionals in municipal and county management, LaSala encourages them to “accept the uncertainty that we face in this job all the time. As my friends Frank Benest, Jim Keene, and Ed Everett have said, it’s important to embrace the ambiguous. While we strive for predictability, we as managers and leaders are confronted with ambiguity. Our role is to facilitate the collective input of our citizens and strive to provide clarity when there isn’t any. Develop and nourish your passion for making representative democracy work. It’s messy and not easy – but oh, how rewarding it can be.”
Background and History
For 38 years, Robert LaSala has served local governments in Florida, California, New York, and New Jersey. He returned to Florida and Pinellas County (where he once had been chief assistant county administrator) in 2008 after managing California cities for 10 years and the challenges of high growth, fiscal constraints, and redevelopment. LaSala earned a bachelor’s degree in history from LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and MPA from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. He is a graduate of the Senior Executive Institute at the University of Virginia and is an ICMA Credentialed Manager.
LaSala has served on the board of directors of the Alliance for Innnovation, and has held leadership positions in local government advocacy at the state and local levels. He has been an active volunteer in the communities he has served, participating in Leadership Florida, with a particular interest in Habitat for Humanity.
He and his wife have one daughter.