The stalemate over Luanne Panacek's sorry leadership of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County was brought to the best possible end last week as board chairman Chris Brown unveiled a deal to remove her and to hire former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio as interim CEO. The move would accomplish two things: Panacek leaves without adding to the drama that has stigmatized the agency, and Iorio brings a steady hand to an operation that needs to focus on hiring an entirely new leadership team. The board should approve the deal Wednesday and then engage in some soul-searching of its own.
After a critical audit released this month found a widespread loss of staff morale and confidence, the only question was whether Panacek would drag out the inevitable or have the sense to protect the agency and her legacy by clearing the way for new leadership. The deal Brown tentatively arranged calls for Iorio to replace Panacek this week, with Panacek remaining as a consultant until an official departure date of Oct. 1 — a full year before her contract expires. This is an opportunity for the agency to move on and for all sides to save face.
Iorio is a problem solver who has experience cleaning up the messes she assumed from a predecessor. Her commitment to the ideals of the child welfare agency and to the standards taxpayers expect from a publicly financed arm of government offers exactly the principled management that this operation needs. As interim leader, she needs to bring both discipline and cohesion to the rank and file, and single out the weak spots in management that have created such a dysfunctional workplace. The new permanent CEO deserves the opportunity to build his or her own executive team, but Iorio can get the ball rolling by highlighting the talent gap at the top. Her presence even on a temporary basis would raise the bar on what this agency is looking for in a chief executive.
Brown served the community well by confronting the internal crisis head-on as his colleagues on the board sat on their hands and criticized him. The interim nature of Iorio's involvement will leave the governing board plenty of room to shape the executive search. Board members, though, need to clear the air about their own culpability in sleeping through a breakdown in morale and leadership that the auditors found had endured for "nearly a decade." This transition period would be a good time for fresh turnover on the board — and for a genuine dialogue on the mission of this social services agency.