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    Favorite won't seek county's top post

    Gay Lancaster, 54, said her life was getting out of balance while she worked as Pinellas' interim county administrator.

    By EDIE GROSS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


    The 12-hour days, the missed workouts, the weekends in the office all have taken their toll on Gay Lancaster, Pinellas County's interim county administrator for the last six months.

    The final blow, however, was delivered by Lancaster's 15-month-old grandson, who scooted right past her one day into the more familiar arms of his grandfather.

    "I wasn't getting to see him until he was in bed," said Lancaster.

    So Lancaster, 54, decided she will not apply for the permanent county administrator's position. Lancaster, who took over Oct. 1 after longtime county administrator Fred Marquis retired, informed county commissioners of her decision in a letter dated Friday.

    "I just felt my life was getting out of balance. I've got to focus on the things that are the most important to me," she said Tuesday.

    She told commissioners privately that she worried the public might question her actions as interim administrator if they thought she sought the permanent job. The commission has barely begun searching for Marquis' replacement, butLancaster, with nearly 12 years' experience as an assistant county administrator, was considered a favorite.

    "She was concerned that if she were an active candidate there might be some misperception out there of her motives as she did her day-to-day work," Commission Chairman Calvin Harris said. "I would suspect, knowing Gay, that she was so concerned about getting the job done that she wanted to remove herself."

    Lancaster was used to putting in long days as the assistant county administrator in charge of social services and EMS. But since Marquis left, she has been doing both her old job and that of the county administrator, who oversees nearly 30 county departments and a $1.5-billion budget.

    The transition has not been an easy one.

    Two weeks after taking the interim job, Lancaster fired popular parks director Diana

    Kyle. Lancaster's refusal to explain the action angered Kyle's supporters and fueled speculation that the two women had clashed. In reality, Kyle's departure had been in the works before Marquis' retirement.

    One month later, Lancaster forced the manager of Weedon Island Preserve to resign after he unwittingly appeared in a campaign ad for a state House candidate. Keith Thompson Jr. was rehired after commissioners urged a review of his discipline.

    And shortly after the New Year, Lancaster and budget director Mark Woodard revealed that overspending would force commissioners to cut or delay $123-million in Penny for Pinellas projects over the next 10 years -- a number that surprised some commissioners.

    Still, commissioners insist their confidence in Lancaster never wavered. In fact, her willingness to wade into the mire of county government impressed them.

    "She can do that job. She has the respect of all the staff and the commission," Harris said. "She's made tough decisions. A lot of time, when you have an interim (leader), the tough decisions don't get made."

    Commissioners said Tuesday they had hoped Lancaster would pursue the administrator's job, but none was entirely surprised by her announcement.

    "I was disappointed, but I have so much respect for why she's doing it," said Commissioner Susan Latvala. "She doesn't want anybody to be able to say that any action she took is because she's applying for the job. It just says a whole lot for her character."

    Commissioners are conducting a national search for the new county administrator.

    "There's a strong tone that maybe we need someone from outside to bring in a new perspective on management and administration, and that would have been something we would have had to consider if Gay had stayed in it," said Commissioner Bob Stewart.

    Because of her decision, commissioners who will hire a search firm to help them find job candidates can turn to Lancaster for advice. Lancaster said she wants to return to her job as assistant county administrator once a new county manager is on board.

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