With Tampa Bay battened down for Hurricane Irma, imagine how important it will be to ensure that contractors making storm repairs are properly licensed, have the appropriate permits and do not rip off homeowners. Yet the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board has so badly failed to fulfill that mission that the Sheriff's Office has become the first line of defense. The latest revelations about insider dealing within the licensing board are more evidence for a grand jury to consider and more justification for the Florida Legislature to abolish the board.
An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times' Mark Puente details how the executive director of the licensing board, Rodney Fischer, and other licensing board officials steered inspection work to vice chair Thomas Tafelski at least seven times between 2011 and 2015. Tafelski earned thousands of dollars from the referrals, and homeowners and contractors told the Times they were not told Tafelski was tied to the agency. One homeowner understandably called it a "rip-off.''
State law prohibits government officials from using their positions to get special privileges for themselves and others. Yet the licensing board was rife with insider dealing under Fischer, who resigned in January. Key figures deny any wrongdoing. Anne Maddox, now the board's administrative manager, wrote a letter in 2012 to a homeowner saying the agency had previously recommended Tafelski and now says she "followed orders." Tafelski sees nothing wrong about the agency passing along possible clients to board members even as experts say it smacks of favoritism.
There is absolutely no redeeming value to this licensing board, which for decades has operated as an independent entity created by the Legislature. With no oversight, it operated with little regard to established government practices, and Fischer exerted sweeping control. As Puente previously reported, for years much of the board's work was conducted with little documentation; minutes of meetings were not kept; and Fischer often settled cases in private meetings without getting board approval or notifying the property owners who complained. When an agency has too much independence and no fear of anyone looking over its shoulder, this is the result.
For Pinellas homeowners, the system has fallen far short. Daphne Reuter complained about her partially collapsed new roof and was advised to hire Tafelski to report on the problems, without being told he was vice chair of the licensing board. Betty Hadaway had a dispute with a contractor over a new driveway. Fischer dismissed the complaint, told her the issue would be reopened if she had the driveway inspected — and she was steered to Tafelski. Fischer even asked Tafelski to inspect the home of Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel. Tafelski inspected the roof, found the roofer did not cause the leaks and asked Seel to pay $250 even though she said she never hired him and never agreed to cover the costs.
Fortunately, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's office now is reviewing and classifying every complaint against a contractor and determining which agency is best positioned to investigate the case. The licensing board is continuing to investigate permitting problems, issue licenses and test contractors. But ultimately, that entire operation has to be replaced. A grand jury is expected to soon issue a report on its findings regarding the licensing board. Then the Legislature should act early next year to abolish the licensing board and transfer its duties to the county. The public and law-abiding contractors deserve better.