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Fix WorkNet's problems

Pinellas County Sheriff's Office investigation has concluded that WorkNet Pinellas violated policies and perhaps ethical standards in awarding a valuable contract to a local church attended by WorkNet associates. That conclusion is just one more stone sinking WorkNet in a swamp of questions and suspicions.

For months, Times staff writer Lisa Greene has detailed the problems at WorkNet, Pinellas County's welfare and job placement agency. Most other regions of Florida seem to have done much better at implementing the federal and state laws passed in 1998 and 2000 to improve America's work force and move people from welfare to work. Pinellas can't seem to do it without stumbling.

As the revelations came week after week, some WorkNet officials tried to explain away or defend clearly indefensible actions. Thank goodness for the leadership of others, including County Administrator Steve Spratt and County Commissioner Ken Welch. The two have been blunt in their assessment that things are broken at WorkNet. They now are trying to tackle the problems, but much remains to be done.

WorkNet Pinellas is the name of the new county agency that opened its doors in early 2001 to carry out the federal government's work force development initiative. The agency was created after the private company with which Pinellas contracted to perform that task, Lockheed Martin IMS, didn't do an adequate job of putting people to work and keeping records, according to county officials.

Now the performance of WorkNet Pinellas also is being questioned after:

+ WorkNet's chief financial officer was fired for lying about having a college degree.

+ County officials reviewed WorkNet's books and found such disarray that grants might be endangered or the county could be forced to cover some WorkNet costs.

+ An outside auditor hired to monitor WorkNet and recommend improvements was ignored.

A batch of anonymous letters listed problems inside WorkNet and claimed that executive director Bonnie Moore is racist. An investigation by the Office of Human Rights did not support that accusation, but did discover that black employees were paid less than whites.

+ WorkNet awarded a $100,000 contract for faith-based mentoring of welfare clients to Pinellas Community Church, supposedly through competitive bids. But the Times reported, and the Sheriff's Office investigation now confirms, that proper procedures were not followed. The church was identified as the likely contractor even before bids were requested. The church was attended by several WorkNet associates including Rick Dodge, the former assistant county administrator and WorkNet supervisor who was fired by Spratt for other reasons in August.

Moore says that WorkNet Pinellas has improved its state ranking and put more people to work. But the mission of WorkNet is being obscured by its problem-plagued administration and the public perception that procedures are not followed, time and money are wasted, deals are made behind closed doors and buck-passing is rampant.

The WorkNet board, responsible for oversight of the agency in collaboration with the Pinellas County Commission, must be more aggressive at finding problems and fixing them before the list of embarrassing shortcomings gets even longer. If the board fails its duty, county commissioners, who need to be more closely monitoring the situation anyway, ought to find new appointees. With unemployment up and funding tight at all levels of government, it is imperative that WorkNet do its work openly, honestly and effectively.