TALLAHASSEE — Outraged by revelations of high living and cronyism, state lawmakers want stricter oversight of Florida's 24 regional work force boards that try to find jobs for people.
Much of the Senate's ire was aimed squarely at the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance Inc. Chief executive Renee Gilmore quit her $170,000-a-year job under pressure last month after disclosures of spending federal stimulus money on gourmet meals, hotels and a comedian at a time of record-breaking unemployment in Florida.
"People get on these boards not for public service, but to service their pocketbooks," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who flatly accused the boards of illegal conduct at a public hearing Thursday.
"They're breaking the law," Fasano said. "It is outrageous what's happening. It's unconscionable."
At Fasano's direction, the Senate next week will advance a bill to put nonprofit work force boards under stricter state scrutiny.
SB 1646 would prohibit board members and their relatives from doing business with their boards; require that the chairman of each regional board be confirmed by the Senate; and require that executive directors of boards be approved by local elected officials — in most cases, county commissioners.
The bill would prohibit spending public money on food, beverages or entertainment for work force board members.
"No more $50 cupcakes," Fasano said, quoting verbatim from a column by the St. Petersburg Times' Daniel Ruth. "This will all end."
The reference is to a 56-page report by the Agency for Workforce Innovation's chief inspector general, James Mathews, which described "excessive" eating tabs, including "$49.95 spent on gourmet cupcakes delivered to one meeting at the home of (Gilmore)."
The report noted that the board ran up pricey dinner tabs even though a "full food concessionaire" was a few steps away from its meeting place.
The Tampa board dished out $615 for pasta dinners and tiramisu desserts and paid $394 for treats at Cold Stone Creamery. A "celebration" board meeting at Cheesecake Factory cost $239.
Seven staffers met at the Stonewood Grill & Tavern in Tampa and spent $283, including a $50 tip.
The inspector general's report noted that staff members were under orders to spend no more than $10 per meal.
Fasano also cited the Tampa Bay board's payment of $3,500 for a comedian to perform at a quarterly meeting.
At Thursday's hearing, Fasano also accused the Lakeland-area work force board, Polk Works, of cronyism.
An independent audit conducted last fall found that the agency, without seeking competitive bids, awarded $452,000 for interior design renovations to Renditions Inc., a Winter Haven company owned by a work force board member.
Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.