Pinellas legislators took an important first step Tuesday toward reforming the agency that regulates local contractors as its embattled executive director stepped down under pressure. Both are positive advances for the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, which has operated for more than 40 years with no oversight. Lawmakers, in collaboration with county officials, should now focus on crafting substantial changes that bring more accountability to this board and better protect both contractors and consumers.
The Pinellas licensing board's autonomy is unique in Florida. Created by the Florida Legislature in 1973, the board and its staff don't answer to the County Commission or anyone else. That lack of oversight has given rise to problems. Tampa Bay Times staff writer Mark Puente documented how the board and its staff failed to keep consistent minutes of meetings and made it difficult for the public to access records of their cases. At least seven times, Puente found, a licensing board member who was paid by unsatisfied homeowners to inspect work served on a panel that heard complaints against the contractors and sometimes voted on them. The 21-member board, comprised of private contractors and county and city building and fire officials, is supposed to protect the public from shady contractors. Instead, it became a self-serving, secretive fiefdom under the longtime leadership of executive director Rodney Fischer.
Fischer, who earned $118,000 a year, was described in a 2014 county inspector general memo as "difficult and impeding," his behavior "unclear and suspicious" as the office tried to investigate a complaint about nepotism. He balked at turning over board records, which are subject to Florida's public records law, and then quoted an exorbitant amount of money to produce them. It's clear that after 16 years under his direction, the board needs new leadership that can withstand, and even welcome, public scrutiny.
At a Pinellas delegation meeting Tuesday, lawmakers voted unanimously to advance a bill sponsored by Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, that would amend the original 1973 statute that established the board. The bill provides an avenue for legislators to drive through more substantive changes, such as giving a county commissioner a seat on the licensing board. Legislators backed away from a more meaningful reform — to abolish the board completely and recreate it as a county department — after concluding that the current law was crafted with input from the 24 municipalities in Pinellas. That was the original purpose of creating the board in its current design — to give contractors a single entity to go to for licensing and the public a central place to take complaints about shoddy construction. But just adding a county commissioner to the licensing board is not real reform, and bringing the licensing board under the county's purview should not be off the table. County administrator Mark Woodard has offered a template for doing that, and it should be given consideration.
Fischer's retirement opens the door to creating a new era of accountability on the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. But lawmakers' work is just starting, and the challenge is to create a new system that provides robust oversight. No ideas should be dismissed for remaking the agency in a way that better serves the public.