The Children's Board of Hillsborough County could use an outside examination of its management team. The report Saturday by the Tampa Bay Times' Jodie Tillman that the public agency mishandled no-bid contracts is the latest in a steady drip of bad news. The agency's governing board needs to get a handle on the operation. The last thing anyone should want is for the public to lose confidence in this important tax-supported agency.
A review of records by the Times shows that officials at the agency violated their policies on nearly $450,000 worth of no-bid contracts dating to 2007. Two of the firms that received those contracts have personal ties to top executives at the Children's Board. Administrators did not establish a rationale for the no-bid contracts, or seek new prices annually, as the agency's policy requires.
The oversight is troubling, because the agency's main job is to manage contracts with social service providers. Hillsborough voters created the Children's Board a quarter-century ago to focus on the needs of children and their families. A special property tax assessment funds virtually the entire budget — $30 million of this year's $35 million spending plan. For an agency that acts as a glorified contracts administrator, getting the details right should be Job One. That these mistakes occurred over years does not instill confidence in front-line administrators or their supervisors.
The board should seek an audit of the contracts in question and a thorough review of the agency's entire culture. The existing policies appear to make it far too easy to award and maintain no-bid contracts. Such single-source deals are an invitation to trouble, especially — as is the case here — when administrators ignore the checks and balances supposedly in place. The agency also seems tone-deaf to the appearance of ethical conflicts. There are far too many intersecting personal and business relationships between agency personnel and vendors. The Tampa Bay market is large enough to accommodate truly arm's-length transactions.
Circuit Court Clerk Pat Frank doubles as the county auditor. Her office is more than qualified to look at the agency and offer recommendations. The agency could hire an outside auditor, too. What's important is to break through a bureaucratic culture that looks to be on autopilot. That will require the governing board to become more engaged. Board members should realize the public is in no mood in these tight economic times to see any government agency play fast and loose. Tens of thousands of area children depend on this agency. Its governing board should make sure its reputation can continue to hold the public's support.