Children's Board CEO agrees to step down early; former Tampa mayor to fill in

TAMPA — Two weeks after the release of a scathing report that questioned her leadership, Luanne Panacek has agreed to step down as chief executive officer of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County.

A possible short-term replacement? Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.

Board chairman Chris Brown announced the tentative agreement in an email Monday to fellow board members.

The taxpayer-funded agency has come under scrutiny recently over spending practices, its handling of no-bid contracts and a workplace caught up in an internal crisis.

The board's directors will meet Aug. 1 to vote on a proposed contract with Panacek, as well as the proposal to put Iorio at the top post.

According to Brown, Panacek, 58, has agreed to enter into a new contract, which would replace the existing one. The new contract would put Panacek's official end date at Oct. 1, a year before her current contract expires.

That would cost the Children's Board $103,836 for early termination, plus $58,275 for her accrued leave.

Panacek, who is paid $171,330 a year, agreed to act as a consultant on an "as needed" basis between Aug. 1 and Oct. 1.

In a resignation letter, Panacek said she had been honored to serve in the top position.

"I have loved every part of my career and every position I have held," she said. "However, no position has made me feel more honored every single day for the last 15 years than being the Chief Executive Officer of the Children's Board."

She did not make specific reference to the human resources audit, released July 12, that described a dysfunctional workplace, one where a majority of staffers "feel key leaders of the executive team lack integrity and ethics."

That audit, conducted by Seffner-based Invictus, urged board members to take swift action. Brown approached Iorio shortly after the release of the report.

Iorio, who served as Tampa's mayor from 2003 to 2011, has a leadership advisory business and also works at the University of Tampa.

Iorio expects the job with the Children's Board to last about six months, giving the agency's board of directors enough time to hire a permanent leader. She said in an interview Monday that she has yet to negotiate the details of her payment.

The former mayor said her first step would be to look at the audit and begin implementing some of the recommendations.

Iorio said she is an acquaintance of Panacek's through various civic organizations and described her as "a very nice person." She declined to offer her assessment so far of Panacek's leadership.

"I'm a forward-thinking person. If I do take this role on, we'll address the issues," she said. "Negativity will not be a part of my tenure."

Brown said Iorio has experience and a proven track record.

"Her agreement is based on her sense of civic duty and acknowledgement of the importance of the mission," he wrote.

Though the agency's board of directors over the years has given Panacek raises and good evaluations, support for her continued tenure took a big hit after the release of the July 12 report, which focused on staff morale and organization.

Before the release of that report, stories in the Tampa Bay Times raised questions about nearly $500,000 in no-bid contracts that went to people with connections to the Children's Board. Staffers began sending emails to Brown, complaining of low morale. Hills­borough commissioners last month requested that the state Legislature conduct a financial audit, and the Children's Board directors later decided to go out and get one, too.

Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who is the county's representative to the Children's Board, said Monday that Panacek had made the right decision.

"I think Luanne probably took some time to search her heart, and I think she was starting to see very clearly the writing on the wall," Beckner said. He said he had heard Iorio's name being floated for the interim director job, though he had not spoken to her about it.

"She's served our community well and has a strong reputation," Beckner said. "In the interim, I think she might be a good fit for our organization."

Board member Pete Edwards, a community activist, said he wasn't a fan of Iorio's when she served as mayor. But he said he would be willing to "give her the benefit of the doubt" as a possible interim leader.

Panacek's earliest critic, Edwards said he believes the split is the best option at this point.

"It's an amicable solution," he said, "and I'm for it."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.

About the agency

The Children's Board of Hillsborough County, which has about 55 full-time employees, was created by county taxpayers two decades ago to be a leading advocate for children. It used $30 million in the current year to finance nonprofit social service agencies that help children. The agency levies a property tax rate of 50 cents for every $1,000 of taxable assessed value. Under a new state law, the property tax that finances the Children's Board comes up for voter reauthorization in 2016.

Who's on it?

A 10-member board of directors oversees the agency. Current members are chairman Chris Brown, an attorney for the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office; Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin Beckner; school superintendent MaryEllen Elia; School Board member Doretha Edgecomb; Circuit Judge Katherine Essrig; school psychologist Susan Schneider; community activist Pete Edwards; consultant Valerie Goddard; energy firm manager John Evon; and Mike Carroll, the Suncoast regional director for the state Department of Children and Families. Some of those positions are set by statute; others are governor appointees.

Children's Board CEO agrees to step down early; former Tampa mayor to fill in 07/23/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 10:23am]

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