By B.C. Manion
Michele Baker – Pasco County’s first female administrator – brings a broad range of experiences to her current post.
As a teenager, she was involved in Civil Air Patrol and then went on to become a member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
Over the years, she’s worked as a waitress, a movie theater manager and a flight attendant.
It was a temp secretary job in the Office of Emergency Management in Miami-Dade County, however, that led her to a career in government work.
“I just found myself really attracted to public service. I fell in love with it. I like being able to do something that contributes to the community,” said Baker, who went on to become operations manager in the Office of Emergency Management.
She was in that role when Hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc on Miami.
“In Andrew, I could not do everything, be everything for everybody,” Baker said.
As a leader, she knew she had to rely on teams and procedures she had developed and to empower people to do their jobs.
“In a stressful situation – lots of new information comes in, and so a trusted agent says to you, ‘Hey, I’ve got this problem. I’ve got this recommendation.’ You develop a gut and you say, ‘O.K., that’s a good recommendation, run with it.’
“It was good training for this job — baptism by fire.”
Baker joined Pasco County’s staff in March of 1993.
She’d interviewed with John Gallagher – the county’s administrator for 31 years – on March 12. The following day the “Storm of the Century” also known as the “No-Name Storm” slammed into the county.
Baker had gone from her interview to a vacation in Atlanta.
“They tracked me down in Atlanta,” Baker said, and told her that if she wanted to work in Pasco it would be a good time to begin.
“I started on the Sunday after the storm, so I was here for the recovery from the storm,” Baker said.
She ascended through the ranks to become Gallagher’s chief assistant, and then served as the interim administrator when he retired after a 31-year-old career at the county’s helm on June 1.
Baker makes history
After a national search, commissioners voted to offer the county’s top job to Tomas “Tommy” Gonzalez, the city manager from Irving, Texas.
After those negotiations fell through, commissioners voted July 9 to make Baker the first woman to hold the county’s top job since Pasco was established in 1887.
In her new role, Baker oversees a staff of more than 2,000 county employees providing public services for about 467,000 residents living within a county that covers about 750 square miles.
She was hired at a salary of $170,000, plus a monthly car allowance of $450. Her contract calls for a $10,000 bump in pay, after a year on the job – contingent upon an evaluation by commissioners that she merits the increase.
“This is a really tough job. I’m willing to prove that I’m worth it,” said Baker.
She intends to draft performance measures for the board to include in her evaluation.
The goal is to base her performance on objectives the board deems important, Baker said.
“I will propose some measures to the board, based on their strategic plan. By putting the priorities out there, it makes me focus on what’s important to the Board of County Commissioners and not allow myself to get distracted by all of the fires that go on.
“We’re going to do that for the entire organization, so we’re working on what’s important, not just urgent,” Baker said.
She has identified some specific areas she intends to tackle immediately.
One top priority is to improve Pasco’s permitting system.
“What I hear from people is that it’s difficult – it has a reputation as being difficult,” Baker said.
She plans to streamline the system, making it more efficient and customer-friendly.
The changes will be based on recommendations from builders, contractors and county staff, she said.
Many of these recommendations will be put into place within 90 days.
“We’re a learning organization,” Baker said. “Those things that work, we’re going to keep using. Those things that don’t work, we’re going to swap out and try something else.”
The county also plans to introduce walk-through permitting, which will make it possible – in some circumstances – to pull a permit in a day.
Fostering employee engagement
Baker also plans to emphasize efforts aimed at maximizing the use of employee talents, Baker said.
Baker, who describes her management style as being collaborative, said the county’s employees are its most important resource.
“What we do is, we deliver services, and we do that through our frontline personnel. They are most critical,” Baker said.
Noting that employees haven’t had a raise in several years, Baker said she’s pleased the board has built a 3 percent raise for employees into the proposed 2013-14 budget.
“It’s been tough,” Baker said, noting that shrinking revenues has caused employees to take on more responsibilities, without additional pay.
“We have amazing employees,” Baker said. “They’ve really doubled down.”
One change calls for employees to have their evaluations completed at the same time, Baker said. That will provide a better understanding about how well employee teams are functioning, she said. By looking across a team, it will be easier to identify areas of strength and those needing to improve, she explained.
The county administrator said the county has challenges, but she’s enthusiastic about its future.
“When we say — ‘Pasco County, Florida’s premier county’ — we mean it.”
“We have great bones. We’re in the right place. We have good infrastructure. We have good housing. We have good people. Fabulous things are going to occur here,” Baker said.
She credits Gallagher for taking the county from its infancy through its turbulent teen years. She’s eager to help it reach full maturation, she said.
She said she’s also pleased to be working with a team of professionals who care about creating a thriving community.
“It’s really nice to be able to work, shoulder-to-shoulder, with people who share a common mission,” Baker said.
They share values, too, she said.
“People who choose to work in government are not in it for the money, they’re not in it for the personal glory,” Baker said. “You’re not just making a widget, you are contributing.”
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