TAMPA — After 15 years at the helm, Luanne Panacek is out as chief executive officer of the public Children's Board of Hillsborough County.
But her exit Wednesday was like the last six months of her tenure: confusing and dramatic.
After a three-hour meeting, board members voted 9-0 on a settlement agreement that allows Panacek to step down with a 26-week severance package of about $104,000 and the remainder of her unused leave.
Her termination is effective Oct. 1, but Panacek was relieved of power as of today and will begin collecting her unused leave, most recently estimated at $58,275, over the next two months.
In a separate unanimous vote, board members of the taxpayer-funded agency agreed to hire former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio as interim chief executive officer. Her six-month contract will pay her the same salary that Panacek received — roughly $14,000 a month — but no benefits.
Panacek's last few months as the agency's top official were plagued with reports of questionable spending, no-bid contracts that did not follow policy and a dysfunctional workplace. Last month, a private consultant interviewed agency staffers and concluded that the workplace was in chaos, with staffers who did not trust their executives. The report recommended that board members take immediate action before the internal drama interfered with the agency's mission to help children.
Wednesday did not go smoothly for Panacek.
First, the settlement proposal she wanted did not come up for a vote. Her private attorney, Mark Herdman, had negotiated the deal behind closed doors with board chairman Chris Brown and board attorney John Bakas.
That agreement provided Panacek with the 26 weeks of severance pay and unused benefits from her existing contract. But on top of that, it kept her on the payroll in August and September — even though she would be working as a consultant only at Iorio's request.
Including salary and benefits, those two months would have cost taxpayers an extra $36,500 at the same time they would have already begun paying Iorio.
That extra time, Panacek's attorney said, would allow her "to go out gracefully" and show that the board was honoring her service. The Oct. 1 date is also significant because it starts a new fiscal year and causes less of an impact on Panacek's retirement benefits.
The proposed agreement also released each side from legal liability and contained a "mutual non-disparagement clause."
But many board members balked at the two months' pay.
"We're paying two CEOs?" asked Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who serves on the board of directors.
"Maybe we'll find a way to honor Dr. Panacek's services, but it's not with a cash payout," said board member Mike Carroll, a regional director for the Department of Children and Families.
Beckner made a motion to stick with Panacek's existing contract, which allows the board to terminate her without cause and pay her the 26 weeks plus unused benefits.
That vote passed 5-4, with Beckner, Carroll, Brown, Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia and community activist Pete Edwards joining in the majority.
Panacek, who at one point interrupted the discussion to say she would not support the option, picked up her purse and water bottle and walked quickly out of the room in tears.
But that wasn't the end of the story either.
Moments after she left, board attorney Bakas mentioned something important: Under the board's bylaws, it takes six votes to terminate the chief executive. And there was an absent board member, Susan Schneider, a diagnostician with the Hillsborough school district.
Panacek was still in charge but no longer in the room.
"We've come a long way and accomplished …" started Brown.
"Nothing!" responded someone in the audience.
Bakas, asked later by a reporter why he did not warn the board earlier of the six-vote requirement, said, "I have no comment."
Several board members who had voted against Beckner's motion declined to be swayed to the other side. One of them, Circuit Judge Katherine Essrig, said she didn't like the unexpected nature of the proposal for a longtime employee such as Panacek, who had assumed that the board would agree to her deal.
"That's not treating somebody with dignity and respect," she said.
No one could immediately find Panacek. The board took a break, and her attorney left the room to look for her. He also spoke privately with Brown.
When the meeting resumed, Brown said Panacek had told her attorney that she had agreed to use a portion of her accrued leave — rather than an additional payout — to cover the next two months.
And so, three hours after the meeting began, the board voted to terminate her without cause, effective Oct. 1.
Panacek never returned.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.