LARGO –– The governing board of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board voted unanimously Thursday to hire an interim executive director and to negotiate the exit of its old executive director.
The board members approved the hiring of former county administrator Gay Lancaster as its interim director after rejecting her appointment last week. The board's refusal to accept outside leadership led Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernice McCabe to announce that a grand jury will investigate the agency.
Then the board dealt with the thornier issue of former executive director Rodney Fischer's payout. He is seeking a total of nearly $100,000 in unused vacation and severance pay.
He resigned Jan. 31 after a series of Tampa Bay Times articles raised questions about the way he ran the agency and the way it disciplined contractors and treated consumers. He also clashed with his employees and butted heads with county officials during his tenure.
Fischer did not speak Thursday. But his personal attorney Marion Hale urge the board to reach an "amicable resolution" because it was the licensing board and county officials who approved Fischer's contract in the first place.
Activist and St. Petersburg resident Vince Cocks urged the group to table a decision on Fischer's exit package until the completion of the grand jury investigation. The board should see those findings before paying anything to its former leader, Cocks said.
Fischer has requested to stay on the agency payroll through June to collect 1,168 hours, or about 146 days, of unused vacation time worth about $66,000. County officials were surprised by the amount of unused vacation time Fischer said he is owed.
From August 2008 until August 2016, payroll records show Fischer logged 20 vacation days, including just one day from 2008 until 2011. Overall, that's an average of less than three days a year. He took an additional 10 days off in 2016 after the Times started looking into the agency in the fall.
Since 2008, he also diverted 160 days to a county program that allows employees to exchange their time off for a lump sum payment. Fischer received about $68,000 through that program, according to county records.
Fischer's contract doesn't specify how he was supposed to log his work hours. The licensing board is an autonomous agency that doesn't report to county officials, so they have no way to verify his hours. The Times asked Fischer about how he kept track of his hours.
"I have nothing to say to you," he said Thursday. "Are you talking to me?"
Clearwater lawyer Andrew Salzman, who was hired by the county attorney's office to represent the board, gave the group three options for dealing with Fischer's request. The board could simply let Fischer exhaust his hours through June or it could hold a hearing to start termination proceedings.
The third option, Salzman said, is a "clean option" of negotiating a settlement and asking Fischer to sign a release to forgo any future claims against the agency.
The board chose the "clean option." But those negotiations won't start until the interim director takes over. A public vote would also be held on the settlement.
Despite resigning last month, Fischer's access to the office hasn't changed. He entered the meeting through the rear employee entrance, while board members and the public used the regular entrance.
Fischer held several closed-door meetings in his old office before and after the meeting. Office manager Anne Maddox, who is currently running the agency, said "there was nothing" in his old office that Fischer could access. St. Petersburg building official Rick Dunn, the interim board chair, said he can't stop Fischer from using his old office.
By hiring Lancaster, the governing board reversed its decision last week to reject her and leave Maddox in charge. The repercussions came quickly: the grand jury investigation was announced and the state lawmaker who recommended Lancaster, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he might support legislation to alter the agency's charter.
The board seemed to get the message on Thursday.
"We are at a crossroad and need to look carefully both ways," Dunn said of the agency's future. "One way is a road down the path to dissolution. That's the danger of not making an appointment today."
Contact Mark Puente at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente