Backstabbing. Doctored records. Withholding information from the governing board. These are only a few of the charges that employees of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County have raised recently about a working environment that one staffer described as "extremely toxic." The board chairman, Chris Brown, performed a public service by confronting the morale problem head-on. This agency is too important in the lives of at-risk children to be allowed to spoil from within. Yet Brown's colleagues on the board are more interested in damage control than in fixing the leadership void.
Brown, the attorney for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, opened his door to board employees over the past month after a series of articles in the Tampa Bay Times called into question the management and operating style of agency CEO Luanne Panacek. In nearly 20 emails, staff members complained about favoritism and patronage, claimed the top executive team worked under a culture of retribution and secrecy, and bemoaned the lack of direction. "The Children's Board is easily the most dysfunctional organization I've ever seen," one staff member wrote. "Morale is at an all-time low."
The comments are far more serious than the usual office carping, and they are coming from experienced employees who express in the same breath their commitment to improving the lives of children. These staff members were courageous to speak out, and Brown performed his public duties by handling this sensitive matter in a responsible way. It was bewildering to hear board members chide the effort. "If somebody's got a problem in here, you keep it in here," board member John Evon said at a workshop Friday. Board member Doretha Edgecomb said she and her colleagues need to observe "parameters." No wonder the problems exist and the staff is so frustrated. The board is acting like an indulgent parent, not the ultimate backstop for a public agency that costs Hillsborough taxpayers $30 million a year.
The emails show an operation that is fractured by mistrust, fear and weak organization, and the board has an obligation to deal more seriously with the concerns. It also needs to get over its distaste for conducting public business in public. Weak leaders do not improve on their own, and poisonous work environments do not simply drift away. Brown is doing the right thing by looking to improve the agency's management. The rest of the board members should pull their heads out of the sand and help.