Hillsborough County did the right thing by stepping in to provide some adult supervision of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County. County commissioners voted this month to seek an outside audit of the agency and explore whether the county could assume more oversight of the independent operation. These are important steps to restoring order in the organization and in instilling the public confidence necessary to keep the agency alive.
The Children's Board is funded by property taxes to address the county's child welfare needs. But a series of articles by Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jodie Tillman has exposed many problems, from mishandled contracts and questionable leadership to poor staff morale. Board chairman Chris Brown, the attorney for Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee, has tried to have a serious public discussion about the root of the agency's problems. But Brown has been thwarted by colleagues on the board more interested in circling the wagons than in righting the management and repairing the image of the organization.
The commission's show of interest was a timely shot over the bow. The Children's Board, as an independent taxing district, does not answer to the county. Commissioners did an end run by voting to seek a legislative audit of the agency's fiscal health and management. That should provide a clearer picture of how the agency operates and the working environment. Commissioners also asked their attorneys to explore whether and how the county could exert more oversight of the public agency. The moves came as a Children's Board staffer, in a new analysis, put the value of contracts that did not follow bid procedures at $4 million, or nearly 10 times an earlier estimate.
The commissioners are not engaging in a power grab, and it is not even clear whether the Children's Board would do better as an arm of county government. But the agency's board has sat on its hands as problems continue to mount. Given its narrow scope, an ongoing audit the Children's Board commissioned doesn't inspire much faith that it will address the major, systemic problems at the agency. And the agency's board would still have to follow through with any reforms. At least the commission shows concern about the agency and a commitment to hold its officers accountable. And by rushing to shore up the agency's image, the commission acted responsibly to protect a safety net for the county's most vulnerable children.
The Hillsborough School Board should add its voice to the call for a thorough review of this organization. Several top school officials already serve on the group's board. And no county agency aside from the Sheriff's Office has a greater interest in ensuring that these child welfare programs are well-administered and effective. If commissioners are looking at reorganizing the agency, the School Board should also be at the table.