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Move to punish Hillsborough Children's Board leader for 'holy oil' fails

TAMPA — For nearly a half hour Thursday, directors of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County spoke about what happened one Sunday in January — without saying what happened.

They approved a new security policy requiring after-hours visitors to be accompanied at all times by employees. They talked about a log for after-hours visitors. They discussed a policy requiring the agency head to contact them when police are called to the building.

Finally, board member Pete Edwards pierced the veil of vagueness. He wanted to talk about the holy oil — and he had a serious reprimand in mind for the board's chief executive officer, Luanne Panacek.

"There's so much uncleanness to this incident," said Edwards, a Tampa community activist. Panacek shifted in her seat and started drinking bottled water.

It was Panacek, the longtime top administrator, who in January took a devout Christian friend into the public agency's Palm Avenue building on a Sunday.

While Panacek worked at her desk, her friend blessed the building by spreading "holy oil," most likely olive oil. She left a sheen of it on desks and doors.

Employees reporting for duty the following Monday panicked, thinking someone had spread a chemical. They called Tampa police.

Then an employee reviewed surveillance video, which showed Panacek and the woman entering the building. Panacek told her staff, but not the entire board of directors, what had happened.

After the Tampa Bay Times learned last month of the incident, Panacek said she allowed the blessing after a "meeting from hell." At that January meeting, she said, Edwards had peppered her with unfair questions.

Edwards was furious when he learned about the incident from a reporter last month, saying Panacek made him out to be a "demon."

On Thursday, he said Panacek's decision put the agency at risk of liability by allowing someone to wander the building. He said a lower-ranking employee would have been fired for such a move.

"It has caused me to have no confidence in the CEO whatsoever," he said.

Edwards made a motion to put Panacek, who earns $171,329 a year, on a 30-day unpaid suspension followed by a 90-day probation. The motion didn't get a second.

He also demanded the identity of Panacek's friend. Board staff said the video was deleted by the time the incident became public.

No other board member demanded disclosure of the friend's name. And Panacek would not reveal it. But she had someone read aloud a letter she said was from the woman.

In that letter, the woman, who calls Panacek a "colleague," said the holy oil "was not used as some type of 'miracle potion' … but it simply represents a symbol of a belief and trust in what Jesus has promised for the individuals that work at the Children's Board."

Panacek, who grew up in the Lutheran church, also spoke. She said she intended the prayer to be a private event. She said she had been trying to meet with Edwards since January but could never do so. She asked who told him she'd implied he was a demon.

Edwards wasn't answering questions at that point. He said he'd have no more one-on-one conversations because he didn't trust Panacek.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who sits on the board, said he had heard concerns from constituents about whether Panacek's actions had mixed religion and government. He questioned whether workers finding holy oil on their desks was "really a private matter."

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

.FAST FACTS

About the board

The Children's Board of Hillsborough County, which has 56 full-time employees, was created by county taxpayers two decades ago to be the leading advocate for children. The 10-member board of directors includes gubernatorial appointees, a judge and representatives from the county and school district. It received $30 million this year to finance nonprofit social service agencies that help children. It levies a property tax rate of 50 cents for every $1,000 of taxable assessed value, about $42 a year for a homestead with a taxable value of $95,000.

Move to punish Hillsborough Children's Board leader for 'holy oil' fails 03/22/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 23, 2012 12:48am]
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