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Chairman of WorkNet board lashes out at county

His speech was scheduled to be an upbeat presentation about the good work that WorkNet Pinellas, the county's welfare and job placement agency, is doing to help the poor and unemployed.

But when Leroy Sullivan, chairman of the WorkNet board, stepped to the microphone Tuesday at a Pinellas County Commission meeting, he had something else to say.

Sullivan lambasted Pinellas County for not taking responsibility for recent managerial problems at WorkNet, and he criticized the St. Petersburg Times for writing negatively about the agency.

"Only one side has essentially been told," he said. "The WorkNet system is alive and well. It's serving thousands of clients every month irresponsive of what you might read in the newspaper."

In recent months, the Times has written about ethical questions over the agency's contract with a church, and about county staff reports documenting problems with bookkeeping and with apparent salary disparities between black and white employees. County Administrator Steve Spratt has called the problems a "breakdown in management control."

Sullivan acknowledged Tuesday that a recent Pinellas Sheriff's Office report on the church contract shows "clear lapses in judgment." But he said too much blame has been laid on the WorkNet board and on WorkNet managers.

Sullivan pointed out that the board did not hire the staff who supervised WorkNet. He also complained that other county departments should have told the board sooner about problems. And he defended Bonnie Moore, the agency's executive director, as doing "an excellent job."

But county commissioners brought Sullivan up short. Commission Chairman Barbara Sheen Todd told Sullivan commissioners aren't blaming the WorkNet board, but that Tuesday's meeting wasn't the time for his comments.

"If you don't believe what they write about me in the paper, I promise not to believe what they write about you," she joked.

Todd told Sullivan that the county's staff has been "very diligent" in trying to solve WorkNet's difficulties. Spratt has put together a "support team" of managers from other departments to help WorkNet.

Commissioner Ken Welch, who also is vice chairman of the WorkNet board, also disagreed with Sullivan. He strongly defended the county's performance as the administrative entity of WorkNet. "The way the faith-based organization grant was handled was just dead wrong," he said.

Another WorkNet board member, Tony Leisner, told commissioners WorkNet has improved services since the agency was formed almost two years ago.

Leisner described how the agency has remodeled its service centers, signed up large corporations to advertise jobs and improved its performance rankings compared to other Florida workforce boards.

Commissioner Bob Stewart, a former WorkNet board member, said the structure of the county's relationship with WorkNet is "difficult and awkward." The county appoints WorkNet board members and is responsible for financial oversight. Yet the WorkNet board, in effect, hired the county as the agency's administrator. He also said WorkNet has done much to improve client services.

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