Editorial: Too much power, too little openness at Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board

Published June 2 2017
Updated June 2 2017

Government at all levels should be open, accountable and financially responsible. The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board failed all of these tests under former executive director Rodney Fischer, who made unilateral decisions behind closed doors and answered to no one. A grand jury is investigating, and it has plenty to sort out.

As the Times' Mark Puente has reported, Fischer took full advantage of the licensing board's autonomy for years. There was little outside interference, and he stiff-armed county officials who dared to seek records or ask questions. This is a textbook example of the risks of too little transparency and too much power vested in one person, and the losers were consumers and contractors who had no way to tell whether they were treated fairly.

Among the latest findings by the Times:

• Fischer frequently met alone with contractors facing fines or license suspensions, warning in writing that they could face stiffer penalties if they refused his request.

• There is little or no indication of how Fischer reached his decisions on penalties, even as he often waived or lowered fines and sometimes outright dismissed complaints. Homeowners who filed the complaints were not invited to Fischer's private meetings with contractors, didn't know they were occurring and sometimes did not even know their cases were dismissed or resolved. In some cases, even contractors were not clear why the complaints against them were dismissed.

• The licensing board cannot fully account for all of the fines it issued over 16 years, and there are hundreds of examples of cases that list no final resolution.

Following questions raised by Puente's reporting, Fischer stepped down in January after 16 years as executive director of the licensing board. His attorney says licensing board members were "well aware" Fischer met with contractors and says he acted within his authority. But 15 board members contacted by the Times said they did not know Fischer settled cases in private meetings without board approval. The grand jury will have to sort out who knew what and when.

It may be even tougher to reconstruct the paper trail and determine if all of the licensing board's money can be traced. The licensing board's antiquated tracking system shows licensed contractors paid fines in 442 cases filed in 2015, for example. Yet the board approved only 145 of those fines. The tracking system doesn't always match written minutes of board meetings, and it refers to payment plans for fines. But the agency cannot say how many contractors are on payment plans or how much money is owed. No wonder Fischer refused a request in 2014 from auditors from the Pinellas County inspector general to review the tracking system.

Here's why this mess matters. Consumers such as Eleanor Morrison, who complained in 2015 that her contractor installed crooked walls and windows and poured too much concrete in her carport, had no idea Fischer dismissed her complaint until the Times called her months later. Contractors such as an air conditioning company should not be bullied into meeting privately with the licensing board's executive director to resolve their case, as one was in 2014. The licensing board should protect consumers from shoddy contractors and contractors from unjustified complaints by consumers, and its work and decisions should be in the open for all to see.

It's clearer than ever that the Florida Legislature should abolish the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board and start over with county government having direct responsibility. Fischer is gone, but the licensing board's structural flaws and lack of accountability remain. If state lawmakers need more convincing, perhaps the grand jury's findings will help them see the obvious.