Top staffer to take big step up

She's not being called the heir apparent, but she could eventually become county administrator.

Published May 18, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY - A top staffer to Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher will become his chief deputy, opening a door to eventually succeeding the most powerful man in local government.

Michele Baker, currently Pasco's engineering program administrator, begins her new job May 28. But she has already picked up some leadership duties as part of a promotion that moves her salary from $79,000 to $125,000 a year.

The County Commission will be asked to back the pick Tuesday, but the actual choice is Gallagher's.

Baker's ascent ends a six-year vacancy in the post, which was last held by Bill Munz until he resigned for health reasons.

County Commissioners occasionally have nudged Gallagher to hire someone, bothered that his time was so overtaxed that big-picture issues like growth management suffered.

"We need John to step back and be able to delegate some authority," said Commissioner Jack Mariano, who lauded Baker. "When you're an administrator, you can only handle so many things at a time."

Gallagher, 60, who has held a tight grip on county government for 25 years, said his tentative goal is to retire in three years. While he, Baker and other officials avoided saying she is the heir apparent, the promotion would make such a succession easier.

"I would not choose that word," said Baker, 45, of Hudson. "I would say I see it as my obligation to prepare for that position."

Gallagher said he wrestled with whether to pick an heir apparent or just someone who he thought would be the best person to serve as chief deputy. The result, he acknowledged, was a person he liked with "a good possibility to be the next administrator."

But it's the commission that gets to pick the county administrator. Mariano and Commissioner Michael Cox said they want a national search to hire the next administrator, a choice that would begin a new era in the county. Gallagher took over in a time of political scandal and led into the high-growth era.

"I don't know if you can assume she's the heir apparent," Cox said of Baker. "Is she in the running and have a foot up on everybody else? Probably so."

As chief assistant county administrator, Baker will oversee day-to-day operations and play key roles in major issues - the first being the mammoth Wiregrass Ranch development negotiations. Gallagher said Baker will keep some of her existing tasks until a new engineering administrator is picked.

Baker said she wants to be a chief of staff, helping Gallagher focus on big issues by handling smaller tasks herself.

Gallagher plans to focus on managing growth, or as he said, "building communities."

The promotion adds to Baker's rise up the ranks of county government. She spent 12 years as emergency management director, shepherding the county through a string of hurricanes and floods. Burnishing her resume with a string of top-notch reviews, Baker moved to the engineering administrator's role in 2005, overseeing major road planning like the Ridge Road Extension and the construction of the Penny for Pasco road improvements.

"She is the finest employee I have ever employed/managed," engineering director Jim Widman wrote on Baker's July 2006 performance review, rating her work a 7.5 on a scale of 8.

More than 100 people applied to be chief deputy, and a dozen were interviewed. But Baker was a front-runner, and Gallagher said her stewardship of the county's recent road impact fee increase made her the winner. She faced developers reluctant to raise housing costs to pay for new roads.

Her new job will mean Baker goes beyond the technical tasks she has done for much of her Pasco career, though. She will confront decisions that "aren't black and white," Gallagher said.

"She is seen as a communicator who is able to influence the outcome of situations through her personality," her 2004 job review said.

As she moves into the new office, now a file repository with two fake poinsettias, Baker said she also wants to create more employee development to build the abilities of more people to move up the ranks.

None of Gallagher's assistant county administrators applied for the post. Many of them began their career with him in New Port Richey city government and will reach retirement alongside him.

David DeCamp can be reached at 727 869-6232 or ddecamp@sptimes.com.

Michele L. Baker

Age: 45

Home: Hudson

Birthplace: Omaha, Neb.

Education: Master's degree in business administration, Saint Leo University; bachelor's degree in business management and management information systems, Florida International University.

Family: Husband, Bill, and two grown stepchildren.

Interests: Sings in St. James the Apostle Catholic Church choir; does Middle Eastern and jazz dancing; rides a custom-built 2007 Softail Classic Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

You probably didn't know: Baker's resume includes stints as an operation intelligence specialist in the Air Force Reserve, an assistant manager of a movie theater and a flight attendant.