Sunday, June 24, 2018
News Roundup

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

   
Comments
Father dead, suspect in custody after hit-and-run driver plows into New Tampa family on bike ride

Father dead, suspect in custody after hit-and-run driver plows into New Tampa family on bike ride

A Tampa man is dead and his 3-year-old son is in serious condition after being struck by a hit-and-run driver as they went on a family bike ride Sunday afternoon.A male suspect is in custody and being interviewed by police but his name has not yet be...
Updated: 14 minutes ago
A local hockey draftee? Mitchell grad Nathan Smith is just that

A local hockey draftee? Mitchell grad Nathan Smith is just that

TAMPA — Every year during draft season, players from the Tampa Bay area are selected in the NFL, MLB and even NBA drafts.But NHL?Sure enough, in the third round of Saturday's NHL draft, the Jets selected Nathan Smith, a forward who was born in ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Office building demolition at Midtown Tampa site proves tougher than expected

Office building demolition at Midtown Tampa site proves tougher than expected

TAMPA ó Stripped to the girders, the old Bromley office building looked about as substantial as fish bones on a dinner plate.But the 5-story structure proved Sunday it still had a surprising amount of fight left in it.A demolition team had planned to...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Rays season turning into good one

Rays season turning into good one

ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays are not the best team in baseball. They are not going to win the World Series this year. Heck, they probably won't even make the playoffs.But I tell you what. This team is a heck of a lot of fun to watch.And ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Rays beat Yankees in 12 innings on Jake Bauers homer

Rays beat Yankees in 12 innings on Jake Bauers homer

ST. PETERSBURG — Rays first baseman Jake Bauers sat at his locker after Sunday afternoon's 7-6, 12-inning win over the Yankees and thumbed through his text messages. There was no way he could get through them all. That's what happens when ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Rays journal: Yarbrough comes through, Venters to DL, support for Ramos

Rays journal: Yarbrough comes through, Venters to DL, support for Ramos

ST. PETERSBURG — Ryan Yarbrough was only supposed to throw on Sunday if it was an emergency. In the 12th inning with the score tied 6-6 and a runner on first, there was an emergency.Jonny Venters tweaked his right hamstring trying to cover firs...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Suspect dead, 2 injured in St. Petersburg home invasion-turned-shooting

Suspect dead, 2 injured in St. Petersburg home invasion-turned-shooting

ST. PETERSBURGSuspect dead, 2 injured in home invasion, shootingThree people forced their way into a St. Petersburg house before dawn Sunday before gunfire broke out, killing a suspect and injuring two residents, police said.About 5:30 a.m., the peop...
Updated: 4 hours ago
A jogger accidentally crossed into the US from Canada and was detained for two weeks

A jogger accidentally crossed into the US from Canada and was detained for two weeks

The coast of White Rock, British Columbia, in western Canada looks to be an ideal place for a run, with its sweeping views of the Semiahmoo Bay to the west and scores of waterfront homes and seafood restaurants to the east. Thatís what 19-year-old Ce...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Head-on crash kills Pasco teenager, injures three

Head-on crash kills Pasco teenager, injures three

NEW PORT RICHEY ó A 19-year-old driver died in a three-car crash on Moon Lake Road on Saturday afternoon, the Florida Highway Patrol reported.Jillian Faith Hitt, 19 and of New Port Richey, was driving north on the road in a 2008 Hyundai Accent, weari...
Updated: 8 hours ago
President Trumpís trade war threatens the US newspaper industry

President Trumpís trade war threatens the US newspaper industry

STERLING, Ill. - As a longtime editor of small-town newspapers, Jeff Rogers has seen his industry face the collapse of print advertising, the rise of the internet and more. Today, his 18 employees work in a newsroom here that puts out two daily newsp...
Updated: 9 hours ago