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Amid troubled finances, Collins Center moves to force out longtime president

TALLAHASSEE — The head of the Collins Center, one of Florida's most well-respected think tanks, is being asked to resign in the face of serious cash-flow troubles and frustration by a board of directors that demanded answers it wasn't getting.

Rod Petrey, 69, the president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit policy center named after former Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins, will be involuntarily removed at an Aug. 11 meeting of the board unless he accepts a separation agreement before then. The board has voted to replace him temporarily with Merrett Stierheim, the former Miami-Dade county manager who has earned a reputation as an organizational fixer.

Petrey has been president and CEO of the center since 1992 and is credited with building the organization to 45 employees with offices in St. Petersburg, Tampa, Miami, Tallahassee and Sarasota and a budget of $11 million. Over the past two decades, the center has had a role in influencing policy ranging from urban revitalization to elections reform and health care to, more recently, providing mediation in mortgage foreclosure disputes.

After Petrey presented the center's latest budget at a July retreat for new and existing board members, several members vigorously questioned his interpretation of the center's finances. The center had recently lost a contract to mediate mortgage disputes for Miami-Dade County, and its contract with federal mortgage bank Fannie Mae has resulted in slower than expected payments.

Some of the most aggressive questioning came from two former mayors, Pam Iorio of Tampa and Manny Diaz of Miami. Trustees questioned whether Petrey was presenting accurate or incomplete information, several trustees told the Times/Herald. And when asked for suggestions on how to resolve it, they said Petrey proposed insufficient solutions, such as selling the center's artwork and some of its Miami property.

The board did not approve the budget but hired an independent auditor, who later confirmed that the center had a cash shortfall that ranged from $600,000 to $3 million, depending on how the numbers were interpreted.

After meeting July 8 and 9 in St. Petersburg, Diaz and Iorio resigned, as well as new trustee Helen Aguirre Ferre, the opinion page editor of Diario Las Americas, and longtime trustee Allison DeFoor, a Tallahassee lobbyist and consultant.

"There were some challenges operationally and with the financial picture,'' Diaz said. "I realized that's not what I'm here for."

Diaz said that during his first and only meeting, which he attended by conference call, he realized the organization had become heavily dependent on its work as a mediator in resolving foreclosure disputes and "had shied away from its core mission to be a think tank."

Iorio didn't want to discuss details, but said that in her new career as a leadership speaker, "I saw that it just wasn't possible to devote the kind of time needed to address the issues."

Board chairman Parker Thomson would not comment on the board's pending decision, but Stier­heim confirmed that the board had unanimously voted to bring him in to manage the organization while it conducts a search for a new director.

"I said, 'Well, if the decision's been made, I'll do it,' '' he said. "I'm not going to apply for a position when there is somebody in it."

Stierheim, who once served on the Collins Center board and has also served as Miami-Dade school superintendent and Pinellas County administrator, credits Petrey with much of the center's success. He said that the board and its lawyers "are working on mutually acceptable agreement" for Petrey's departure.

Petrey could not be reached for comment.

Three trustees said that negotiations over a separation agreement were continuing. One member, however, expressed concerns about offering Petrey a severance package when employees may have to be furloughed or laid off because of the center's weak finances.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Amid troubled finances, Collins Center moves to force out longtime president 08/04/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 4, 2011 11:47pm]

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