Tuesday, December 12, 2017
News Roundup

State lawmakers call to abolish the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board

For 44 years, the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board has regulated contractors without any government oversight.

That could end soon.

On Monday, state lawmakers and all seven county commissioners said they want the Florida Legislature to abolish the licensing board and fold the work under county government, like other similar boards in the state.

The calls follow a Tampa Bay Times investigation that detailed the fast and loose approach of how the board handles complaints against contractors. The Times also found that homeowners feel cheated, ignored and even stonewalled. Contractors feel the same way and some believe the board targets anyone who speaks out.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he and Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, plan to file legislation that would give control of the licensing board and its work to Pinellas County government.

The licensing board's mission is to protect taxpayers from shoddy contractors.

"Clearly, there's nobody watching the watchmen," Brandes said. "That is the best thing we can do."

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said that after reading the Times story, he consulted with local leaders and residents about how to reform the licensing board.

"I stand with the homeowners that demand this anachronistic board be abolished," he said. "Its responsibilities should be transferred to the County Commission, so it can be run effectively and be responsive to the citizens it serves. I'm working on legislation today to solve this issue."

Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said he is open to either folding the work into county government or reforming the 1973 legislation to add stricter oversight.

"That board is unaccountable," Sprowls said. "We need to make changes."

State Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, said he supports giving control to Pinellas County, adding: "There needs to be the appropriate level of accountability."

The Florida Legislature created the board in 1973, but it does not answer to any government officials.

Pinellas County's seven commissioners each said Monday that the lack of government oversight does not do enough to protect contractors or residents. Each commissioner favored moving the licensing board under county government.

Chairwoman Janet Long said she heard frequent complaints Sunday from taxpayers who read the Times' investigation. An agency that regulates thousands of contractors should report to government leaders, not mostly private contractors, she added.

"This is totally outrageous," Long said. "It is not serving the needs of contractors and taxpayers."

Vice chair Ken Welch said the Times' findings echoed complaints elected leaders have heard in recent years.

"Accountability is missing," he said. "We need to follow what works in other counties. It's time to start looking at that."

Commissioners Karen Seel, John Morroni, Pat Gerard and Dave Eggers agreed with Welch's assessment.

"The accountability needs to be local," Eggers said. "It seems strange this is the only county that does it this way."

Added commissioner Charlie Justice: "People think it's already part of the county anyway."

The Florida Legislature established Pinellas' unusual licensing board to create uniformity in the county's construction and fire codes. It has an annual budget of $1.8 million collected from fees and fines, and a paid staff of 10 — an executive director, five office workers and four investigators. Executive director Rodney Fischer, 72, has led the board since 2001. He did not comment for the Times investigation and did not respond to requests to comment Monday.

The board of directors consists of 21 men — 14 are private contractors who volunteer. The other seven are building and fire officials across Pinellas County.

The board's lack of accountability came up repeatedly during the 60 interviews conducted for the Times investigation, which also included a review of more than 5,000 pages of public records and 17 hours of the licensing board's audio recordings.

Members of the panel that review complaints against contractors mocked the public, targeted critics, and turned the recorder off when it suited them, the Times found.

Until recently, the board kept no written minutes of the disciplinary hearings, which experts said violates Florida's public records law. The failure leaves consumers and contractors in the dark about how their cases were decided. Board officials also gave conflicting accounts of what public records were available.

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

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