Friday, September 21, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas construction licensing board to decide on former leader's payout and interim replacement

LARGO — Amid a swirling controversy, the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board will meet today to discuss the former executive director's request to stay on the payroll through June so he can collect about $66,000 in unused vacation time.

The emergency session will be the first time the agency's governing board has met since Rodney Fischer announced his resignation Jan. 31 and asked to collect the 1,168 hours of vacation time he said he stockpiled over 16 years. He could collect only 696 hours if the board rejects his request, according to county policies. That move would cost him about $26,000.

Fischer, who earned $118,000 a year, officially retired last week after a series of Tampa Bay Times articles detailed the way the board disciplines contractors and whether the board treats consumers and contractors fairly. Fischer also clashed with his employees and butted heads with county officials.

The licensing board was created by the Florida Legislature four decades ago and operates outside county government.

Fischer's 1,168 hours of unused vacation time surprised county officials, who had no authority to verify his work habits or examine how he logged his hours. His annual contract as a senior manager doesn't specify how Fischer was to record hours.

Paul Skipper, the licensing board's former chairman, said the board members didn't verify Fischer's hours or question how he logged his time. But Skipper said Fischer often started early and stayed late, long after staffers left the office.

"He worked lots of evenings and weekends," Skipper said. "He didn't get paid overtime."

Fischer also approved his own time slips.

St. Petersburg building official Rick Dunn, a longtime board member who took over as interim chair, said he plans to examine county leave policies since he oversees the board until new leaders are picked. He doesn't know how Fischer logged his hours.

"I do not think any employee should be paid for time not worked unless they use appropriate earned leave time or approved comp time," Dunn said.

Pinellas County Human resources director Holly Schoenherr said only board members had the authority to ask Fischer about his work hours, adding: "It falls on management."

Under vacation allowances in place since 2004, Fischer would have earned about 2,800 vacation hours in his career.

Between 2013 and 2016, Fischer diverted vacation hours to a county program that allows employees to forgo the time off in exchange for money paid in a lump sum. He received a payment for 160 hours each December since 2013, totalling nearly $35,000, according to payroll records.

A review of five years of Fischer's daily payroll records show he took a total of 15 vacation days (about 120 hours) from the start of 2012 through the end of 2015. In 2016, he logged four vacation days (32 hours) through August, when the Times began its investigation. He took another 10 days (80 hours) after that.

After using hundreds of hours and cashing in at least 640 more, Fischer says he is still owed the 1,168 hours. He did not return calls for comment for this story.

Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Janet Long cautioned she has not read Fischer's job description but said county rules are designed to prevent employees from potential payroll abuses.

"In this instance, it doesn't appear that anybody checked on him," Long said of Fischer's vacation hours. "Who did he report to? Nobody. That is the problem. The Legislature needs to fix this."

The Pinellas County Commission is frustrated that Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has promised to block any legislation that would change the way the licensing board operates. The commission believes the agency should report to county government, while Latvala said appointing a new executive director is enough change for now.

Integrity Florida research director Ben Wilcox said Pinellas County officials have an obligation to make sure Fischer worked the hours he recorded.

"Somebody needs to take a look at this," Wilcox said. "The county shouldn't just blindly pay this claim. If the county is on the hook for this, there should be someone looking at it."

Meanwhile, today's meeting will be the first in 44 years that Fischer isn't connected to the board either as executive director or sitting on the governing board. Fischer joined the board when the agency was created in 1973.

Dunn will ask board members to appoint Gay Lancaster as interim director. She is the former director of the Juvenile Welfare Board and once served as interim county administrator when Fred Marquis stepped down in 2000. If approved, Lancaster said she would start Monday.

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

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