It’s reckoning day for the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board.
Pinellas lawmakers will discuss the troubled agency’s future when they meet on Wednesday in Tarpon Springs to discuss their priorities for the 2018 legislative session.
The 10 Pinellas County legislative delegation members agree that the licensing board needs improved accountability and transparency to better protect the public from unscrupulous contractors. The question is whether lawmakers will seek to keep it independent or fold it into Pinellas government like in Florida’s other 66 counties.
Regardless of the path, county commissioners, contractors and residents say they want action.
"We have to get focused," commission chairwoman Janet Long said. "Under the county, we would make sure consumers are protected. It’s not about being independent or under the county."
The meeting is set to start at 1:30 p.m. at St. Petersburg College’s Tarpon Springs campus at 600 E Klosterman Road.
The Legislature created the licensing board in 1973 as an independent agency, so only lawmakers can change how it is governed. The agency regulates building contractors and investigates complaints against them. It doesn’t have police power and can only issue fines.
A series of Tampa Bay Times stories has detailed how licensing board leaders and staff lacked accountability, disregarded rules and raised concerns about whether they treated consumers and contractors fairly.
So far, lawmakers have submitted five bills to change how the licensing board operates, but it’s likely only one will make it to Tallahassee in January.
Any bill that moves forward must win support from all three Pinellas senators: Republicans Jeff Brandes and Jack Latvala and Democrat Darryl Rouson. Any of the three can kill a particular proposal.
Latvala did that during the 2017 session, saying bills proposed then didn’t meet public notice requirements. He also objected to the commissioners’ request to fold the agency under the county.
TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD
At a delegation meeting in September, the now-gubernatorial candidate declared he would not block a reform effort in 2018 but reaffirmed his support for keeping the agency independent.
A grand jury investigation suggested multiple ways to reform board operations. Pinellas County Inspector General Hector Collazo Jr. issued a blistering report on Sept. 20 that outlined 93 problems with the agency.
"It’s imperative we do something," said Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg. "This issue is calling out for immediate attention."
Currently, each of the five bills would change the agency’s makeup, including reducing the governing board from 21 contractors to between nine and 15. Each would add term limits for board members.
Latvala submitted a bill in September to incorporate the grand jury’s recommendations, including requiring financial audits by the inspector general and making the agency produce annual reports about its operations. His son, state Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, is a co-sponsor.
A couple of the bills would model the licensing board after a similar regulating agency the Legislature created in Palm Beach County. There, board members discipline contractors but the county sets their budget and runs the staff. Commissioners support that overhaul route.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, submitted one of those bills to mirror Palm Beach County. Diamond submitted a similar one.
Rouson said that method would best protect residents and ensure accountability.
"Working together with Senator Brandes, Pinellas County officials, and the other members of the delegation, we have crafted a bill that will satisfy stakeholders actively involved with the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board," Rouson said in a statement.
"It will also protect consumers and citizens in our county for years to come and ensure construction and home improvement contractors are properly regulated."
Brandes, of St. Petersburg, had compared the agency to an airliner flying upside down with one engine at 30,000 feet. He is now behind Rouson’s proposal as a co-sponsor. The proposal also would allow voters to dissolve the agency through a referendum.
Brandes predicted that other lawmakers will support the bill on Wednesday.
"We have all coalesced that this is the right way to handle this," he said about reforms. "I’m happy with it."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente