Tuesday, January 23, 2018
News Roundup

Lone state bill to reform Pinellas construction licensing board is killed

When a controversy erupted in November over possibly faked nominations to serve on the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, state lawmakers vowed to craft new legislation that would make the nomination process more transparent.

SPECIAL REPORT: Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board plays fast and loose with disciplinary process

But that legislation was tainted from the start: executive director Rodney Fischer, whom a county commissioner suspected of submitting those fake nominations, was allowed to make suggestions to the proposed reforms.

SPECIAL REPORT: Pinellas licensing board leader Rodney Fischer described as a 'bully' and 'suspicious' in clashes with employees and county officials

That's according to state Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole. Fischer announced his retirement on Jan. 31 after the Tampa Bay Times reported about issues with how he managed the agency and how it treated customers and disciplined contractors during his tenure.

But while Fischer left, the bill he helped shape lived on.

It finally died on Thursday, after the Times asked Ahern about the legislation.

"That is the bill that Fischer wanted," Ahern said. "At the time, Mr. Fischer was still in good standing. He brought the suggestions to the table.

"I suspect at this point, nothing will happen with the bill. We're not going to pass it."

The Pinellas agency is the only licensing board in the state that runs itself. It doesn't report to county government, so there's no oversight. It can only be reformed by the Florida Legislature.

But the agency is also being investigated by a grand jury, and that inquiry may not be finished until after this year's legislative session is over. Ahern said he believes it is unlikely that the Pinellas legislative delegation will propose any reforms until the grand jury probe is done.

That means reform may not happen until the 2018 legislative session. Ahern, however, said he is "inching" closer to abolishing the agency.

Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, who first complained about the nominations last year, said he was disappointed the legislative delegation didn't see how serious the problems were at the licensing board much sooner.

"I guess we'll have to wait a year to get real reform," Justice said.

The nominating controversy erupted in November after Justice got into a dispute with Fischer over the names submitted to serve on the licensing agency's governing board. Though the agency is independent, the county commission chair must still approve appointments.

The Times reported that eight people nominated for two spots on the board did not know their names had been submitted until a reporter contacted them. At the time, Fischer blamed the problem on Jennifer Doerfel, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association, for the nominations. She blamed Fischer.

For decades, trade associations submitted names to serve on the agency's governing board to the Pinellas County Commission with the top name on the list being their preferred candidate. Then came the controversial nominations in August.

Two of the names submitted by Fischer were already on the board and had served for decades as the licensing board's chairman and vice chairman. Fischer said he wanted both men back. But when Justice asked for more candidates to choose from, the list he got included people who didn't know they had been nominated. Justice called it a way to "rig the system."

Ahern's proposal would have allowed trade groups to submit the name of just one candidate. He said Fischer, who was executive director for 16 years, proposed 21 pages of changes to the legislation.

The Pinellas County Commission wants the legislature to give it control of the licensing agency. But in February, state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he would block that effort. He said the county's request did not meet the public notice requirement for proposed legislation and there wasn't enough time to draft a new law before the 2017 session started.

But Latvala reversed course on Feb. 9, after the board rejected his handpicked candidate to take over as executive director. Latvala then said he would support radical reform, and Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe announced the grand jury investigation.

The agency's governing board got the message the next week: They voted Feb. 16 to hire Latvala's pick, former county administrator Gay Lancaster, as interim director.

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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