Monday, May 21, 2018
News Roundup

Odds don't look good for Children's Board CEO

TAMPA — The theme of Luanne Panacek's 15-year tenure at the helm of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County has been this: According to her board of directors, she did little wrong.

She got raises. She received glowing evaluations. She took no real heat from the board for letting a religious friend spread "holy oil" in the public building on a Sunday. And when reports earlier this year began raising questions about her leadership, most board members stood behind Panacek, suggesting the Children's Board simply needed to better manage a publicity crisis and "tell our story."

That's all changed now.

Next month, the taxpayer-funded agency's board of directors will decide whether to fire Panacek after a scathing outside study released last week found a dysfunctional workplace, one where a majority of staffers "feel key leaders of the executive team lack integrity and ethics."

The odds don't look good for Panacek, who is paid $171,330 a year. Four of the 10 board members, including Chairman Chris Brown and County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, have said they want to part ways with Panacek.

Three others — including Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia, School Board member Doretha Edgecomb and consultant Valerie Goddard — would not directly answer the question of whether they wanted to fire Panacek. But they agreed the report requires immediate action when it comes to her future at the Children's Board.

"It's a new season," Goddard said. "I'm confident that our board clearly gets the message and is prepared to take appropriate action."

Elia said the report contained serious allegations.

"The executive team is referenced multiple times," she said, "and so I think it is clear that some action has to be taken."

Board members already are talking about an interim executive director; the future of Panacek's top lieutenants and whether the report could give them reason to fire Panacek with cause, something that would affect her contractual payout.

As of this week, Panacek had not offered a resignation. The board meeting is set for Aug. 9.

The study released last week focused on staff morale and organization, and did not address questions raised in recent Tampa Bay Times stories about nearly $500,000 in no-bid contracts that went to people with connections to the Children's Board. Hillsborough commissioners last month requested the state Legislature conduct a financial audit, and the Children's Board directors later decided to go out and get one, too.

Panacek's contract expires at the end of September 2013. If she is terminated without cause, she would get either 26 weeks of pay or the remainder left on her contract, whichever is less.

One option would end Panacek's contract this September, a year early. That would cost the Children's Board $103,836 for early termination plus $58,275 in her accrued leave.

That option was pushed at a recent meeting by board member John Evon, a manager for a fuel and energy firm. He had been a strong supporter of Panacek and two months ago accused chairman Brown of "going rogue" for compiling and making public staffer emails that complained of low morale and dysfunctional leadership.

But Evon said last week that the staffing report produced by Seffner-based Invictus Human Capital Management changed his mind.

"It's an eye-opener," he said.

If Panacek resigns, she's due at least her accrued leave, under the terms of the contract. If she is fired with cause, the Children's Board would owe her no additional money.

Though the Invictus report called for swift action, the firm's co-founder, Michael Stephens, told board members last week they should not interpret his report as a recommendation Panacek be fired with cause.

Brown, an attorney for the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, said the option of terminating Panacek's contract on Sept. 30 "seems appropriate."

He added that if the board votes to do that, he would recommend having an interim leader step in to take over before Sept. 30 rather than leaving a fired chief executive officer in charge for another seven weeks.

Otherwise, he said, "It's uncomfortable on both sides."

The Invictus report has implications for the current and past boards, too. One of its most salient points: The internal problems at the Children's Board are nothing new. They were apparent in consultant reports dating to 2000.

Those reports have hit on themes of internal communication issues; a failure to implement and follow policies and procedures and a perceived lack of fairness among employees.

"Obviously, past board members have missed something," board member Pete Edwards said at the most recent meeting.

The board is composed of volunteers who meet monthly. Evon said that as a layman, he hasn't always had time to fully understand the agency and what it does.

"You're not equipped sometimes to know this," he said, "and you have another job."

Edwards, a community activist, had been raising questions about Panacek for months. He said the report confirmed what he already knew from speaking with staffers. "I feel vindicated," he said.

Goddard said it's time to show the board is in charge.

"I don't think there's going to be any sort of hunkering down at all," she said. "I think it demonstrates confidence in the community that we are at the helm and are moving the ship forward."

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.

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