CLEARWATER –– The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board on Monday lost its strongest supporter for staying independent.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican running for governor, told the Pinellas legislative delegation that he would not sponsor any new legislation reforming the agency. Those reforms were suggested by a grand jury report released Sept. 20, the same day that an inspector general's report lashed the agency and its former leadership.
Latvala said last week that he would submit proposed legislation to incorporate the grand jury's reforms for fixing Florida's only independent construction licensing board. He also reaffirmed his support for keeping the agency independent.
But at Monday's legislative delegation meeting he reversed course, saying that while he had drafted such a bill, he will not sponsor it for the 2018 session.
"I've got a full plate. This is going to take a long time to pull it together," said Latvala, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "This is my last year in the Senate and, I frankly, have a lot of other issues that I have to be dealing with."
Latvala's pivot could open the door for those who want to abolish the licensing board and hand the job of regulating contractors to county government. That's the way every other county in Florida deals with bad contractors.
TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD
The senator said legislators and county commissioners must work together to solve the licensing board's problems — but that window is closing. To meet public-notice requirements for the group's next meeting on Nov. 1, the county delegation rules require members to submit proposals by Friday.
"It's clear there were a lot of improprieties and self dealings in that agency," Latvala said. "I don't condone it."
The Legislature created the licensing board in 1973 as an independent agency, so only lawmakers can amend that act. But any proposal must win support from all three of Pinellas' senators.
One of those senators, St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, called the Legislature the "crudest tool" for overseeing the agency. He told the delegation he would submit a proposal to place the licensing board under county government.
Brandes compared the licensing board to an airliner flying upside down with one engine at 30,000 feet.
"We can either try to change out the pilots and provide new direction and control or we can try to change planes," he said. "I'm in the change planes mode. This entity is not well served, given its current path and trajectory."
Pinellas' other senator, St. Petersburg Democrat Darryl Rouson, said last week that he favored abolishing the agency and putting it under county control. At Monday's meeting, he did not say which option he preferred.
The grand jury recommendations followed a series of Tampa Bay Times reports earlier this year that showed how the agency was mismanaged, failed to follow its own rules and angered both consumers and contractors with how it doled out discipline.
A separate investigation from Pinellas County Inspector General Hector Collazo Jr. detailed 93 problems with the agency, including shoddy management of its finances and records, lack of accountability and oversight, and disregard for agency procedures and state law.
At Monday's meeting, Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Fred Schaub, who helped direct the grand jury investigation, summarized its report. He also praised Collazo and his team for turning the agency upside down in search of answers.
"They were not impressed by the prior management," Schaub said of the grand jury's opinion of the licensing board.
Latvala's support for keeping the licensing board independent goes back to February, when he vowed to block any attempt to place it under county control. He also said then that there wasn't enough time to propose new law to reform the agency in time to fulfill the notification requirements for the spring 2017 legislative session.
Brandes had a question about one recommendation in the grand jury report: It cautioned that moving the licensing board under the county could jeopardize the "Coastal Construction Line Agreement" the agency reached in 2001 with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The report said "some county officials believe" it's important to keep the agreement intact, in which a local program regulates coastal construction and excavation in accordance with state law.
Why can't the county do that as well, Brandes wondered. He asked Schaub whether anybody contacted the state to ask about the fate of the 2001 agreement if the Legislature abolished the licensing board.
"Did anyone reach out to DEP?" Brandes asked.
Schaub said no. Brandes then said "we have no clue" whether the issue is "really an issue." Schaub agreed.
Dee Ann Miller, a DEP spokeswoman, said the agency could not answer a hypothetical question about the agreement.
"We are committed to working with the county to ensure protection of the environment and Florida's coastal resources," Miller said in a statement.
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente