BROOKSVILLE — Jerome Salatino loosens his tie.
"I'm really not a corporate guy," the new head of the regional workforce board confesses as he sits in a windowless office with a cherry desk and tall bookcases. The only things he claims are a box of tissues and a spare necktie. The fancy furniture was picked out by his predecessor, who left in disgrace six months ago, felled by a whistle blower's allegations that he misused public money to do favors for his boss' private company.
"I'd rather have a smaller office with a window," Salatino mused. Weather permitting, "I'd have a staff meeting beside a pond."
For all of Salatino's disdain for buttoned-down attire, he faces a task that depends on strict adherence to policies and procedures, rules and laws, protocol and red tape. Sitting atop the desk is a pile of reports with various places bookmarked.
"I really don't have much time to read for pleasure," he said.
Those who hired Salatino have high hopes that the 40-year-old can restore credibility to an agency battered by scandal and change its image as merely a social services venue to a business community resource that contributes to economic development.
"We don't want to be known as the agency for deadbeats on welfare," said Ed Blommel, a retired Tampa Electric Co. executive who was appointed Pasco Hernando workforce board chairman after Steve Jensen resigned during the investigation in June.
Blommel said Salatino, who has 20 years of workforce board experience, so impressed the executive committee during his interview that the members didn't even bother to rank the four other finalists.
"I think he's really going to light us up," Blommel said. "He had done so much research on us that he knew more about us than we did about him."
Salatino, who is being paid $83,000, is taking the reins at a critical time, with Pasco and Hernando counties mired in double digit unemployment and the federal government pumping millions in stimulus money through the state's regional work force boards. The agency serving Pasco and Hernando, known officially as the Pasco Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership, has been without a permanent leader since June, when longtime leader Lee Ellzey was forced out.
A whistle blower turned over a laundry list of complaints ranging from the giving of a copier to a staffer's friend to the then-vice president hiring his father to do maintenance work. (The vice president, Terry Williams, resigned.)
The most serious allegations involved Ellzey, Jensen and a work program that uses federal money to help pay for companies' employee training. The whistle blower told investigators that Ellzey overrode lower level staffers' denial of the grant for Jensen's companies and approved $123,000 in in-house training costs.
The rate came out to about $3,844 an hour, which was "extraordinarily high and deviated from established practice," the 48-page report said. The money was never paid to the trainer, but Florida Department of Law Enforcement is still investigating the matter.
"Jerome's as clean as a hound's tooth," said Bill Griffiths, the director of public information at WorkNet and a longtime colleague of Salatino. "You can't be acting like it's your own little fiefdom. It's government money and the people's money given to us for a specific reason, and Jerome understands that very clearly."
The son of educator parents and the youngest of four boys, Salatino spent most of his formative years in the Tampa Bay area. He graduated from Clearwater High School and the University of South Florida. He considered a career as a psychiatrist but found his niche while working in the university's career center.
From there he worked for Goodwill Industries and managed one-stop career centers, including those in Hernando and Pasco. He joined WorkNet Pinellas in 2002 as its operations manager and rose through the ranks, eventually becoming its chief operating officer.
He's no stranger to agencies in crisis. During his tenure at WorkNet, a sheriff's review uncovered ethical problems, including a $100,000 contract that officials helped steer to a church attended by a top county administrator. The chief of WorkNet eventually resigned. No criminal charges were ever filed.
Salatino was not implicated in any questionable dealings.
He said experience in such an atmosphere prepared him to take the reins at the troubled Pasco and Hernando agency.
"I've been through that," he said.
Salatino says he wants to ensure transparency and plans to make more information about the agency's expenditures accessible online. He will run the names of all companies seeking training dollars by the workforce board.
"We need to be accountable for what we do," he said.
Ideas for that include more surveys, focus groups, and involvement in other agencies such as the chambers of commerce, economic development councils and other high profile groups.
Salatino last week even secretly evaluated the one-stop job centers. He ditched the despised business suit for a T-shirt and sweat pants and posed as a client.
His assessment was the staff was friendly and professional but the career centers, with metal chairs and labor market posters, seemed sterile and uninviting.
"We need to make it more like a Starbucks," he said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Jerome Salatino graduated from the University of South Florida in 1994. The original story listed an incorrect year.