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Goodbye licensing board. New agency to watch Pinellas contractors

Left to Right: Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board chair Rick Dunn, then-executive director Rodney Fischer, and Fischer's attorney Marion Hale, discussed allegations that Fischer rigged the nomination process to keep certain members on the board in late 2016. Fischer later resigned and the Legislature altered the agency's structure. Now the Pinellas County Contractor Licensing Department will take over its duties July 1. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Left to Right: Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board chair Rick Dunn, then-executive director Rodney Fischer, and Fischer's attorney Marion Hale, discussed allegations that Fischer rigged the nomination process to keep certain members on the board in late 2016. Fischer later resigned and the Legislature altered the agency's structure. Now the Pinellas County Contractor Licensing Department will take over its duties July 1. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 7, 2018

CLEARWATER ––A relic the Florida Legislature created in 1973 to protect consumers from shady contractors will soon drift away, just like the tune Dobie Gray released 45-years ago.

On July 1, the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board –– Florida's only independent construction board –– will disappear after years of mismanagement, misbehavior and minimal oversight.

That is also the first day of the new Pinellas County Contractor Licensing Department, which will start regulating thousands of licensed contractors under the watch of county government.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Report slams Pinellas construction licensing agency and leaders

The change was signed into law in March by Gov. Rick Scott. This session the Legislature passed a bill stripping the licensing board of its independence after an inspector general's report and a grand jury found that it failed to protect consumers and contractors.

The old licensing board was run by a board that was accountable to no one. The Legislature created that problem in 1973 and only lawmakers could fix it. By contrast, the new licensing department will report to the Pinellas County Commission.

"It's finally a new day for licensing in Pinellas County," said Commissioner Charlie Justice, who started pushing to overhaul the licensing board in late 2016. "People want stability, respectability and accountability. We offer that."

Pinellas County administrator Mark Woodard revealed more details about what the new licensing department will look like on Friday.

Glenn Wardell, the county's chief building official and interim building services director, will lead the new department. It will be based in county office space at the Young-Rainey Science, Technology and Research, or STAR Center, on Bryan Dairy Road. in Largo.

The licensing board's current employees will have to apply if they wish to work for the new department, Woodard said. Their old jobs will disappear on July 1 along with the old agency. Pinellas' new mechanism for policing contractors aligns it with what Florida's other 66 counties were already doing.

TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD

Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board plays fast and loose with disciplinary process

Pinellas licensing board leader Rodney Fischer described as a 'bully' and 'suspicious' in clashes with employees and county officials

Pinellas licensing board executive director settled hundreds of cases without getting his board's approval

Times investigation: Pinellas County construction agency steered work to board member

In 2017, a series of reports in the Tampa Bay Times raised questions about how Pinellas' independent licensing board was being run, whether it adjudicated disputes between consumers and contractors fairly and whether it was even following state law.

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Last year, a grand jury and the Pinellas County Inspector General's Office produced reports criticizing the agency. The inspector general's report was particularly scathing, detailing the many flaws it found with the agency: The PCCLB mismanaged its finances, and employees and board members skirted the agency's own rules.

The inspector general's report that found the licensing board was failing at its primary mission: preventing unlicensed contractors from ripping off homeowners. It outlined 93 problems at the agency, including that former executive director Rodney Fischer "violated county rules and ethics requirements" and a member of the governing board "misused his position."

Fischer resigned in January 2017, months before those investigations were completed.

During those investigations, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri addressed another problem: the licensing board was failing to ask law enforcement to help take thousands of cases to criminal court. Instead, the licensing board preferred to punish violators with fines it could not compel anyone to pay.

So in August, the sheriff launched the Construction Licensing Investigative Unit and trained deputies to investigate contracting crimes.

"I'm definitely ready for a change," said contractor Darren Clark said about the new department. "We're looking for an even playing field."

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.

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