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Local CareerSource attorney questions whether Pinellas commissioners can remove directors

Charles Harris is board counsel for CareerSource Tampa Bay and CareerSource Pinellas. ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times
Charles Harris is board counsel for CareerSource Tampa Bay and CareerSource Pinellas. ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times
Published May 3, 2018

CLEARWATER –– The lawyer for Tampa Bay's two main jobs centers is questioning the authority of county commissioners to remove the board members who oversee the agencies.

Charles Harris, the attorney for CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay, told the executive committee of one of the agencies on Wednesday that state and federal law put that authority solely in the hands of the governor.

His comments were sure to inflame already tense relations between the jobs centers and county commissions on both sides of the bay.

They were supposed to watch over CareerSource. Many didn't show up.

CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa, which serves Hillsborough County, receive millions in federal tax dollars annually to help people find work. Both agencies are under state and federal investigations into whether they inflated their success in reports to the state under former president and CEO Edward Peachey, who was fired in March.

U.S. Department of Labor officials have expressed alarm to county commissioners over the lack of jobs agency oversight. Pinellas and Hillsborough commissioners appoint people to the CareerSource boards and have told members of both that they will need to reapply for their posts.

Harris went further on Wednesday to say it was inappropriate for Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch to threaten the removal of CareerSource board members who had voted to provide Peachey a payout after he was fired. Board members ultimately rejected the settlement.

"It's bad policy," Harris said, discussing Welch's comments about removing board members. "It's not what the county should be doing."

That drew a strong rebuke from Welch, who called it "twisted logic" and said the attorney "is part of the problem" at CareerSource.

"I believe CareerSource needs not only a new CEO but a new attorney," Welch said. "I think the consensus of the commission is that we want new board members."

CareerSource centers took credit for thousands of hires they had nothing to do with

Tampa Bay jobs centers entered thousands of fictitious phone numbers in state network

Bylaws for CareerSource Pinellas say that "members of the Board shall serve at the pleasure of the Pinellas County Commission." Pinellas County Attorney Jewel White has told commissioners they have the power to remove a CareerSource board member.

But Harris said those bylaws do not trump federal and state law.

In early February, commissioners ousted CareerSource Pinellas' board chair Aundre Green after he blocked a motion to suspend Peachey. Harris acknowledged that he didn't research the issue three months ago, but said he has now.

"Frankly, I think he's still a member of this board," Harris said.

Green could not be reached for comment.

CareerSource Pinellas board member Tom Bedwell called Green a "good man" and told Pinellas Commissioner Pat Gerard, the vice chair of the jobs center board, that the commission was wrong to remove him.

"I wish he could get an attorney and sue the hell out of you," Bedwell said.

Several board members said the County Commission was exerting unfair pressure over the board.

"I don't want to become a puppet of the commission," said CareerSource Pinellas board chair Jack Geller.

Peachey's lawyer, Marion Hale, attended Wednesday's meeting with a stenographer, who took most of her notes during Harris' presentation. A written agenda of items to be discussed at the meeting did not include the presentation. Harris said he did not notify Hale before the meeting.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com. Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996.