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New leader picked to head Hillsborough Children's Board

TAMPA — The Children's Board of Hillsborough County has tapped the head of Alabama's Department of Child Abuse Prevention to lead the organization that provides money to nonprofits that promote child welfare.

Kelley Parris of Montgomery, Ala., has led that state's child abuse prevention efforts since 2008. Before that, she was executive director of the West Alabama Mental Health Center Inc., where she worked for six years.

Of the nine Children's Board members present, all but one ranked Parris as their top pick of five finalists, which included three local candidates and another from Washington. Board members said Parris' mix of experience, her management record and her desire to vault the agency's public profile made her an easy choice.

"Her background is tailor-made for what we do," said Chairman Chris Brown, general counsel for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. "She has a child abuse social services background. She has a mental health social services background. She has a media background. Those are all facets of what we want our executive director to do. And her interview was impressive."

Details of her contract must still be negotiated, but the salary range for the position is from $115,000 to $140,000. She currently makes $91,000, according to a resume she submitted with her application. Board members agreed to offer her a two-year contract, which would provide for no more than 12 weeks of severance if she is ever fired.

Attempts to reach Parris late Friday were unsuccessful.

She succeeds Luanne Panacek, who was fired in August after a failed negotiated departure to end her 15-year tenure. That followed months of scrutiny for questionable spending, no-bid contracts and bad workplace morale.

Panacek started facing increased questioning of her decisionmaking after revelations that she let a friend sprinkle holy oil in the agency's Ybor City office building after a tense public meeting.

Board members then hired former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio to serve as interim chief executive officer. Iorio promptly dismissed 15 employees and ultimately shrank the office, which largely administers grants to nonprofits, to 36 employees from a high of 55 when she took over, something she called "right-sizing" the agency Friday.

The Children's Board was created in 1988 by voters. It receives a small slice of property taxes that it then doles out to 30 or so nonprofit groups focusing on child welfare. Iorio said the agency now uses just 10 percent of its property tax allotment for administration with 81 percent going to direct spending on helping children and families.

"I think she will be able to continue with the fiscal prudence Mayor Iorio has started," said Kevin Beckner, a Hillsborough County commissioner who sits on the board.

Under state law, the agency's funding must go before voters by 2016 to see whether they still approve of their property tax money going to the agency. The public should vote yes, as things stand today, Iorio said.

But she said she thinks work must be done by Parris to explain to the public what the agency does and ensure voters that their money is well spent. She said she thinks Parris will perform that part of her job, and the rest, well.

"She's very accessible and she's used to working in the public realm, because she works for the state," Iorio said. "She's by nature an extrovert. And she's an authentic person."

Iorio, ever a whispered prospect for state office, said for now she plans to go back to what she was doing once Parris' start date is determined. That includes public speaking and consulting about leadership.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

New leader picked to head Hillsborough Children's Board 05/10/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 10, 2013 9:36pm]
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