Thursday, July 19, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas licensing agency running out of board members

LARGO — The troubled Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board is facing another threat to its survival: The agency must find enough members to serve on its governing board by Oct. 1 — otherwise it may not be able to discipline contractors.

The agency was rocked by allegations last year that former executive director Rodney Fischer was rigging the nomination process to keep his hand-picked candidates on the board. The Pinellas County Commission never approved any of his nominations, leaving the board shorthanded.

That was right before a series of Tampa Bay Times reports raised other questions about how Fischer ran the licensing board: whether homeowners and contractors were treated fairly; whether the agency followed state law and its own rules; whether the agency improperly steered work to the board's vice chairman; and whether the agency even did its job properly.

TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD

Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board plays fast and loose with disciplinary process

Pinellas licensing board leader Rodney Fischer described as a 'bully' and 'suspicious' in clashes with employees and county officials

Pinellas licensing board executive director settled hundreds of cases without getting his board's approval

Times investigation: Pinellas County construction agency steered work to board member

Fischer resigned in January and the agency has recently been the subject of a grand jury investigation.

Now, several board members have told the agency they no longer wish to serve on the 21-member panel. The Tampa Bay Builders Association, which used to nominate contractors for the board, has also said that it will no longer nominate any of its members to serve on the governing board.

"I'm not touching it," said TBBA executive vice president Jennifer Doerfel. "The TBBA is not going to be involved" in picking any more board members.

The agency's 21-member governing board needs a minimum of 11 to fulfill its main function: vote on disciplinary actions against contractors.

But seven seats have been vacant since last year, and a public official on the board recently retired, leaving the board with 13 members.

Another nine seats expire on Sept. 30, which would leave the board with just four members.

Gay Lancaster, the agency's interim executive director, said she will ask Pinellas County Commission Chair Janet Long to reappoint those current board members willing to serve beyond Oct. 1.

But so far, records show two members plan to step down: attorney Peter Vasti and window contractor Steve Gleaton. Six others have agreed to continue serving, but that's up to the county commission chair. Lancaster said she is waiting to hear from one other board member.

Lancaster said it would be best to simply reappoint those members to keep the agency working, adding: "We need to keep moving along."

The board and its role overseeing the agency has also come under scrutiny. Agency critics blamed board members for failing to prevent problems. Board members countered that they each had full-time jobs and were not responsible for overseeing daily operations. That was Fischer's job.

Uncertainty still hangs over the agency. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe launched the grand jury probe in February to examine how the agency operates and it's still ongoing. The Pinellas County Office of the Inspector General is also examining the agency's finances.

McCabe plans to ask the grand jury to propose possible ways to reform the agency, which requires legislative approval. That's because the Florida Legislature created the agency in 1973 to license and discipline contractors in Pinellas County. It doesn't report to county government. Only lawmakers can change the way the agency operates.

The Pinellas legislative delegation is slated to meet Monday to start discussing how to fix the agency in time for the 2018 session.

Builder James Rosenbluth's term on the board expires this month, but he said he's willing to continue serving.

"I would like to see the transition through and the changes that will make the organization stronger, viable and better for the public," Rosenbluth said.

The 1973 law requires county commissioners to approve board members nominated by trade groups. One problem is that several trade groups listed in the law went out of business.

The county recently advertised an opening to fill Vasti's seat. He has served as the "consumer" appointee for more than a decade, records show.

Long said she will reappoint those members but stressed that the appointments could be temporary because the agency will likely be reformed.

"We don't know what is going to flesh out," Long said about the grand jury findings. "We need to keep it open for the sake of our residents."

But losing board members isn't the agency's only problem.

The agency is projected to go broke in February and could shut down without a loan of $500,000. Tax dollars do not support the agency. It operates on license fees and fines.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he will explore ways to help the board get a $500,000 lifeline from the state to keep it open into next year.

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

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