Paul Lackey's job was to help community organizations run programs for young people. His agency would assist the neighborhood groups with payroll and other paperwork chores and monitor their finances, allowing them to concentrate on the kids. But over the course of two years, Lackey gained a reputation among community leaders as being the opposite of helpful. Time and again, they say, his agency cut off their funding or threatened to. Programs shut down. Lackey fueled a perception of arrogance by maintaining that his agency was not subject to the state's open-records and open-meetings laws, even though it distributes $5 million a year in public money. Neighborhood-level dissatisfaction bubbled up.
Last week, Gay Lancaster, who heads the Pinellas Juvenile Welfare Board, was frank about her concerns that Lackey and his agency were threatening programs with loss of funding without JWB approval.
"It seems like sometimes JWB is being used as a stick, and that's not what we are about,'' Lancaster said. "It's not about control; it's about partnership.''
At midday Friday, Lackey met with a JWB consultant and the president of his agency's board. By the time it was over, he had resigned.
"One is never relieved when things come to this," Lancaster said later. "I am looking forward ... to certainly strengthening the organization, helping it achieve the success that we had anticipated.''
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Lackey headed a 2-year-old bureaucratic structure that the JWB set up to fund, support and monitor some of its smallest programs.
Called Pinellas Core Management Services, this separate, nonprofit corporation handles about $5 million of JWB's $68 million budget.
Small programs would still receive JWB money, but would now work through PCMS and Lackey, its executive director.
There were problems from the beginning.
An organization running a neighborhood center in Clearwater lost its JWB funding and repaid $37,000 amid allegations of fiscal mismanagement.
The board chairwoman of a neighborhood group in Tarpon Springs led a push to fire its longtime executive director, David Archie, saying the JWB would withdraw funding if he stayed on the job.
After Lackey denied any such threat, Annie Dabbs was voted off the board and Archie was reinstated.
Lackey and his board of directors then decided not to follow Florida's sunshine laws about keeping meetings and records open to the public, whose tax dollars pay the freight. But after JWB board members expressed dismay, PCMS agreed to open up its records and meetings.
Most recently, Lackey came under fire for his handling of some reading programs in St. Petersburg's Childs Park area.
Five churches and one mosque each receive $20,000 to teach reading and social skills to 15 at-risk children between 6 and 10 years of age.
In February, some of the ministers say, Lackey told them they were not serving enough children and he was going to cut off money for their programs.
Lackey denies that his message was that stark. He said he told the ministers that losing funding was a possibility if they couldn't get their numbers up.
But the ministers say Lackey clearly told them they were losing their JWB funding. A few stopped their programs on the spot.
"I was surprised. I thought the program was going great,'' said Bahiyyah Sadiki, president of St. Petersburg Islamic Center, which had the busiest program and continued serving kids despite the upsetting news.
"It's going to take time for a program like that to catch root,'' Sadiki said. "We took them to SeaWorld and they had never been. When they got back, they were totally different kids.''
"We saw kids' reading scores go up,'' said the Rev. Nate Drayton of Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church at 3940 18th Ave S.
"As a schoolteacher, I could see they were responding to the fact that here was something in their own community.''
Some of the ministers complained to County Commissioner Ken Welch, who is a JWB board member. He told Lancaster, who convened an impromptu meeting last week to get the reading programs back on track and to quell "a great deal of angst and frustration on the part of the pastors.''
Cutting the financial cord was never JWB's intention, Lancaster said.
"We are working to concentrate services in communities in greatest need,'' she said. "I don't think that is possible to do without involving grass roots organizations who are there and have relationship with the kids who live there.''
After the Childs Park blowup, she paid $25,000 to hire Marcie Biddleman, a recently retired vice president of Eckerd Community Alternatives, to assess how the JWB-PCMS arrangement can be improved.
"We need to get this thing back on track,'' Lancaster said.
Late Friday, it appeared that it would be Biddleman's job to do just that.
Lackey could not be reached for comment after his resignation Friday. But in an earlier interview, he acknowledged that misunderstandings had arisen with neighborhood programs.
"There is an impression that we are out there trying to defund programs, which is totally not true,'' Lackey said. "I came here because I care so much about community programs."