LARGO — For years, a Pinellas County committee judged complaints against contractors without legal guidance, or transparency, or even rules.
That changed Wednesday. In an effort to restore trust at the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, interim executive director Gay Lancaster started reviewing complaints against contractors again.
Only this time the licensing board did so with a county attorney on hand to provide legal advice and county auditors monitoring how they handle homeowner complaints against contractors.
The move follows a Tampa Bay Times investigation in January that raised questions about how the agency handled conflicts of interest and whether the disciplinary process treated consumers and contractors fairly. The Pinellas County Attorney's Office attended board meetings, but did not go to the hearings where a small panel ruled whether contractors violated laws.
The licensing board's fast-and-loose approach to discipline, rules and record-keeping led to the retirement of longtime executive director Rodney Fischer and the launch of a grand jury investigation into the agency. Lancaster expanded the probe by asking Pinellas County Inspector General Hector Collazo Jr. and his staff to audit the board's operations, which includes its finances.
"I want to make sure we're doing things right," Lancaster said. "We're trying to be as open and transparent as possible."
It's the first time the Pinellas inspector general's office has examined the agency's entire operation. The licensing board, which was created by the Florida Legislature in 1973, is the only one in the state that operates without county oversight. Only legislators can reform the agency, which has 14 private contractors and seven local building fire officials on its governing board.
Wednesday's meeting, called a probable cause committee, was the first held in months. For the past five years or so, Fischer led the panel while at least two other longtime board members sat in judgment of contractors.
Lancaster changed that. She asked St. Petersburg building official Rick Dunn, the board's interim chair, and South Pasadena director of community improvement Neal Schwartz, to serve on Wednesday's panel until new board members can be appointed. Lancaster said she needed the panel to review a backlog of homeowner complaints that have been building since January.
"People are getting impatient," she said.
During Fischer's tenure, the Times learned that the agency didn't always notify homeowners that their complaints were being heard. Consumers didn't know what happened until they got a letter in the mail.
But two homeowners attended Wednesday's meeting to answer questions about their cases.
"It was a horrible experience," Cynthia Stone told the panel about her dispute with a builder over $21,000 of renovations. "It was a nightmare."
The Times also detailed how the board's former vice chair worked for consumers, and then sat on the panel that ruled on their complaints against contractors.
In some cases, he disclosed those conflicts of interest and abstained from voting, but in other cases he failed to do so and voted, and in some cases disclosed the conflict and still voted. Those disclosures were also never made in writing, as required by state ethics rules.
That problem surfaced again Wednesday. As an investigator discussed a case, Dunn said he could not rule on the case because the homeowner is a St. Petersburg employee who works for him. The panel tabled the case. Lancaster said written minutes of the hearing would detail why and list Dunn's conflict.
During the hearing, Assistant County Attorney Carl Brody interrupted the panel to offer advice, which the old panels never got.
Wednesday's hearing was also a chance for those trying to reform the agency to figure out what needs to be fixed. Lancaster said she has interviewed construction officials across the state looking for best practices. Melissa Dondero, an assistant inspector general, told the panel that auditors are studying agency procedures and will eventually make recommendations to help operate more efficiently. Brody told the group he is studying the operation and "there are changes that I want to make" to their procedures.
"We are all here to make things better," Lancaster said.
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente