Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Under new leadership, Pinellas construction board starts judging contractors again

LARGO — For years, a Pinellas County committee judged complaints against contractors without legal guidance, or transparency, or even rules.

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

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.

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

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

Under new leadership, Pinellas construction board starts judging contractors again 03/30/17 [Last modified: Thursday, March 30, 2017 9:25am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Florida Rep.: Trump says fallen soldier knew what he signed up for (w/video)


    MIAMI — President Donald Trump told the widow of a slain soldier that he "knew what he signed up for," according to a Florida congresswoman.

  2. Wing of Channelside Bay Plaza being demolished to make way for Water Street Tampa


    TAMPA — The developers of Channelside Bay Plaza originally wanted the name to include "Garrison." That would have fit, in a way, because the complex turned out to be fort-like, inwardly focused and unwelcoming.

    Demolition of the southwest wing of Channelside Bay Plaza is underway, with a big chunk of the building expected to come down today.
  3. City Council candidates weigh in on noise ordinances, pier reconstruction


    ST. PETERSBURG — Residents of Bayfront Tower Condos peppered City Council candidates Tuesday night with questions about noise ordinances, road repairs and the multi-million-dollar plan to rebuild the pier.

  4. What you need to know for Wednesday, Oct. 18


    Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what you need to know today

    Twenty years after it opened, part of Channelside Bay Plaza will get demolished, with a big chunk coming down today. [Luis Santana | Times (2010)]
  5. Can you eat a jack-o'-lantern? And other thoughts on cooking with whole pumpkins


    The pumpkin is sweating, and so am I.

    I've got my knife an inch into the watermelon-sized orb, which is staring at me all like, "I'm too cute to be dinner!"

    Pumpkin with farro, cranberries and walnuts is good hot or cold.