TAMPA — Before them was a stack of staffer emails complaining about low morale, dysfunctional leadership and the accuracy of contract documents. But some of the officials who oversee the taxpayer-funded Children's Board of Hillsborough County didn't want to talk about the messages.
Instead, they criticized board chairman Chris Brown for compiling the emails in the first place, a decision they said wrongly took chief executive officer Luanne Panacek — the subject of many of those critical emails — out of the loop.
"If somebody's got a problem in here, you keep it in here," board member John Evon said at a workshop Friday. "We start going off the deep end here, and then we go rogue."
Board member MaryEllen Elia, the Hillsborough school superintendent, said Brown's invitation last month for staffers to contact him could undercut a third-party audit of staff morale that is under way.
"I am somewhat concerned that an action taken by a single board member detracts" from the decision to hire the auditor, Elia said.
Board member Doretha Edgecomb said she and her colleagues need to observe "parameters" and that she regretted not stopping Brown when he made his open-door offer.
"I failed as a board member not to say to you, 'Chris, let's think about that,' " said Edgecomb, also a Hillsborough School Board member.
Brown, an attorney for the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, said he stood by his decision, which he made after hearing that Children's Board employees were afraid to speak out.
"I take exception with the word 'rogue,' " Brown said.
The Children's Board, a nearly $30 million agency that finances child welfare programs, has been under scrutiny in recent months, starting with the revelation that Panacek let a friend in after hours to spread holy oil in the public agency's building and continuing with a series of Tampa Bay Times reports on the board's high salaries and handling of no-bid contracts.
After Evon said he always took problems first to Panacek, Brown said, "John, you've been on the board for five years. Maybe that system isn't working."
A consultant for nonprofits, Maggie Gunther Osborn, attended the workshop and spoke to board members about the importance of speaking with a united front and minding certain boundaries.
She compared the board to an hourglass with board members at the top, the chief executive officer in the middle and staffers at the bottom. Everything from board members, she said, should flow through the CEO.
Board member Pete Edwards, who was one of the earliest critics of the agency's administration, said it had failed to provide timely updates to his questions.
He said he worried the talk about a united front could scare staffers or taxpayers from approaching board members.
"I still expect staff, pro or con, to weigh in with their opinions," he said.
Nearly a month ago, Brown asked Panacek seven questions about everything from policies to staffing. On Friday, she handed out her responses.
One of Brown's questions was whether the right person is in place in the CEO position.
Panacek, whose $171,330 contract expires in September 2013, said, "Yes."
"I have demonstrated over my 30+ year career that I am a consummate professional, a supportive boss, a creative thinker and a collaborative partner," she wrote. "I have always received outstanding evaluations and even in January 2012 when a single Board member gave me zeroes the overall evaluation was very good."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374.