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Pinellas construction licensing board needs to be fixed. But how?

LARGO –– Everyone agrees that the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board needs to be reformed. But no one agrees on how to do it.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Report slams Pinellas construction licensing agency and leaders

The 10 members of the Pinellas legislative delegation are set to meet Monday to discuss a law that would overhaul the troubled agency but some officials have questioned whether they'll be able to agree on what that law should say.

That uncertainly is best reflected in the opposing views of two influential state senators, Jack Latvala and Jeff Brandes.

Latvala, a Clearwater Republican running for governor, wants to add the accountability measures recommended by the Sept. 20 grand jury report on the agency.

Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, wants to get rid of the agency and let the county take over the job of protecting the public from shoddy contractors.

The Legislature created the licensing board in 1973 as an independent agency so only lawmakers can fix it. But that proposal must win support from all three of Pinellas' senators.

"We need to make a determination that the board needs to exist and be independent," said state Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, about the delegation's job. "Before we talk about reforms, we have to talk about the legitimacy of this agency."

County commissioner Pat Gerard said she fears taxpayers could get caught in the middle of a political stalemate if the delegation doesn't agree on a fix.

"It leaves things exactly the same as it is," Gerard said. "We can't have that."

The county's third state senator is Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. He said he favors abolishing the agency and putting it under county control. But he won't officially back that option until he speaks to his fellow legislators.

"Oversight and accountability is what we need to do," he said. How to get there, he said, "is going to be debated."

The grand jury started investigating the licensing board after a series of Tampa Bay Times reports earlier this year raised questions about how the agency operated under former executive director Rodney Fischer, whether agency leaders and staff followed proper procedures and whether the licensing board treated consumers and contractors fairly.


Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board plays fast and loose with disciplinary process

Pinellas licensing board leader Rodney Fischer described as a 'bully' and 'suspicious' in clashes with employees and county officials

Pinellas licensing board executive director settled hundreds of cases without getting his board's approval

Times investigation: Pinellas County construction agency steered work to board member

A separate investigation was launched by Pinellas County Inspector General Hector Collazo Jr. and his team of auditors. They also released a 180-page report on Sept. 20 that detailed 93 problems with the agency's shoddy management of its finances and records, its lack of accountability and oversight, and disregard for its own rules and state law.

The grand jury recommended reforming the agency by reducing the 21-member board down to 15 members, subjecting the agency to a county audit and requiring it to issue annual reports on its finances and operations to the public.

The grand jury report rejected the Pinellas County Commission's solution: put the licensing board under county control.

Still, even among commissioners there are mixed views on the best way to reform the agency.

County Commissioner Karen Seel said she agreed with the grand jury recommendations and praised interim executive director Gay Lancaster for helping restore trust at the agency.

Commissioner Dave Eggers said he prefers the county take control but he is open to keeping it independent with the proper accountability measures added.

But commissioner Charlie Justice said the grand jury's recommendations do not go far enough:

"It seems like they're recommending physical therapy when major surgery is required."

The inspector general's staff tried interviewing more than 50 public officials and contractors in its report on the licensing board. Only 15 agreed to talk.

That includes six of the 14 current board members (the county and board are at an impasse over filling the other seven board seats). Two former contractors who served on the board also spoke.

The transcripts showed that most favor reforming the board.

A few blasted Fischer's leadership.

Glenn Wardell, the county's building services division manager, said he supports more transparency, but said the agency needs to remain independent.

"Government already has a bad rep for taking over everything," Wardell said, according to the transcript. "Should the PCCLB fold under the county it would be like adding fuel to a burning flame."

Seminole Fire Rescue Fire Marshal Michael Rodde said the board is top heavy with contractors and needs more regulators. He said he often felt confused, that Fischer failed to keep the board informed.

"Whenever you would ask a question, you feel like you never get a straight answer as Rodney sort of danced around the issue," Rodde said. When the board needed to vote, "you never know what's going on or where they're getting the rules ... it was like a cloak and dagger situation."

Jim Ford, Seminole's top building official, wants to reduce the number of board members. He said he joined the board this year after rejecting earlier opportunities because of the way Fischer managed the agency.

"He was taken back in the past of how Rodney handled himself and acted as if no one had any authority of him or his agency," stated an investigator's summary of Ford's interview. Ford said he had heard that "Rodney kept the staff under his thumb."

Fischer, who resigned in January amidst criticism from elected leaders, was criticized in the inspector general's report, which said he "violated county rules and ethics requirements."

The inspector general's report criticized the "lack of transparency" at the agency and failure to properly store and track public records. In his interview, Fischer called Florida's public records law "onerous" and said the state should restrict access to those records.

"While I believe government records should be available to the public," his statement said, "I think there should be limitations when done for predatory purposes."

He declined to comment to the Times about the criticism he received from his own board. In his interview — he only responded to questions in writing — he also defended his leadership.

"I believe the PCCLB has done a good job!" Fischer wrote. He added:

"Administratively, the PCCLB was well run given the myriad of responsibilities the Board/Staff shouldered. Not sure there is any transparency changes needed."

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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