Pinellas commissioners and legislators have spent 10 months debating how to fix the dysfunctional Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. But as the deadline to submit legislation to reform the independent agency approached Friday, County Attorney Jewel White dropped this bombshell:
Pinellas County may not have the legal authority to take over all the duties of the licensing board.
If that's the case, then the county could not take over the agency. The licensing board would remain independent, although with new accountability measures recommended by a grand jury.
White and a Florida House attorney, according to two lawmakers, told them Thursday that the county charter might not allow the county to regulate building codes. That would mean the county could not take over investigating complaints against contractors — the job of the licensing board.
Five of the county's seven commissioners didn't know about that potential legal issue until Friday, when a Tampa Bay Times reporter told them about it.
It was the first time those commissioners said they'd heard that could be a problem, even though they've been discussing how to fix the agency since January.
They said it didn't come up when they spent an hour debating the licensing board issue during Tuesday's commission meeting, or during their private discussions with White. Nor did White raise it an email she sent to commissioners on Thursday, when she told them she would do her "very best to keep you informed of the most current information available."
"This would have been good to have before Tuesday," County Commissioner Ken Welch said. "This is new information to me. It doesn't help. It's definitely a concern. This puts the legislative delegation in a bad position."
Added commissioner Pat Gerard: "This thing keeps going around and around. I didn't know."
White did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
She was appointed county attorney in July after spending 21 years in the office. White was the deputy of former county attorney Jim Bennett, who retired after three decades of public service.
A series of Tampa Bay Times reports earlier this year showed how the agency was mismanaged, failed to follow its own rules and angered both consumers and contractors with how it doled out discipline.
County Commission chair Janet Long has complained that Bennett and his office failed to properly advise the agency.
Then on Sept. 20, two reports were issued regarding the board. One was the county's inspector general report that outlined 93 issues with the licensing board. The other was a grand jury report suggesting ways to reform the agency.
• • •
Despite the legal confusion, Pinellas lawmakers still submitted three proposals for reforming the agency. To meet the public-notice requirements for the Nov. 1 meeting of the county legislative delegation, those bills had to be submitted by Friday to be introduced in the 2018 session. The Legislature created the independent licensing board in 1973, so only it can reform the board.
TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD
One bill from state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, gives county commissioners control of appointing board members (no one more recommendations from contractors' groups) and would allow the agency to be dissolved by voters in a countywide referendum. The county commission could also remove board members at any time.
Brandes favored dissolving the board and giving its duties to the county. But he adjusted his bill given the legal advice from White and a Florida House attorney. Brandes said he could still amend his bill later to take stronger measures.
Another bill from Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, would not abolish the agency, either. Instead it would model the licensing board on a similar regulating agency in Palm Beach County. There, board members discipline contractors but the county sets the budget and runs the staff. Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, submitted a similar proposal.
Rouson said his bill would nullify any potential charter issues because it amends the 1973 law, instead of getting rid of it.
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente