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Pinellas lawmakers approve sweeping changes for licensing board

TARPON SPRINGS — The embattled Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board may soon get a makeover and new oversight.

After months of debate, Pinellas lawmakers voted unanimously on Wednesday to support legislation in early 2018 that would give the County Commission control of the agency that is charged with protecting residents from shady building contractors but has itself come under scrutiny.

The proposal from Sens. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would reduce the number of licensing board members from 21 to 15. It also would subject the agency to annual financial audits and make commissioners responsible for appointing board members.

The agency and its employees currently report to a board of mostly private contractors appointed by trade associations, not elected officials.

"This is not a perfect bill, but this is a great start," Rouson told the group. "It ultimately protects the consumers."

The Legislature created the Licensing Board in 1973 to regulate building contractors and investigate complaints against them. It is the only board of its kind in the state, its duties largely handled by counties in other parts of Florida.

The agency imploded after a series of Tampa Bay Times stories detailed how agency leaders and staff lacked accountability, disregarded rules and raised concerns about whether they treated consumers and contractors fairly.

Investigations by Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Pinellas County Inspector General Hector Collazo Jr. followed. A grand jury suggested multiple ways to change board operations, and Collazo issued a blistering report on Sept. 20 that outlined 93 problems with the agency.

Delegation members floated five separate bills to reform the agency. They coalesced around the proposal from Rouson and Brandes.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, killed similar legislation during the 2017 session, saying it didn't meet public notice requirements. At a delegation meeting in September, the now-gubernatorial candidate declared he would not block a reform effort in 2018.

Latvala often said this year that lawmakers cannot write laws based off newspaper stories. On Wednesday, he criticized the Times for not thoroughly explaining ramifications of moving the agency under the county. He accused the County Commission and a reporter of being "hell-bent" on shifting the agency to the county.

The comment followed McCabe explaining why a grand jury recommended keeping the agency independent. Industry experts have expressed fear that the agency would lose control of regulating statewide contractors who work in Pinellas and raised the possibility it could lose $300,000 a year in license fees from them.

Brandes asked McCabe why he didn't inform the delegation at its last meeting in September.

"I'm sorry," McCabe said. "I missed the last meeting."

McCabe then stressed he had "no dog in the fight" and urged the delegation to do what it needed to do to reform the agency.

A county attorney tweaked the proposal to eliminate the concerns.

In response to Latvala, Pinellas Commission Chairwoman Janet Long said the county is only concerned about protecting residents, adding: "The County Commission is not hell-bent on taking over anything."

If passed in Tallahassee and signed by Gov. Rick Scott, the legislation also would add term limits for Licensing Board members. They would not be able to serve more than two consecutive four-year terms.

Additionally, the legislation would require the agency to produce annual reports on how it serves contractors and taxpayers. The agency has failed to keep shoddy and unlicensed contractors from preying on property owners in Pinellas County.

Currently, the agency does not receive tax money and operates solely on license fees and fines. A provision in the legislation says the agency would be eligible for state funding for three years as it transitions to county government. But it does not automatically mean the agency will get money.

At Brandes' urging, another provision would allow Pinellas voters to abolish the agency through a countywide referendum instead of going back to the Legislature for help.

As Long left the meeting at St. Petersburg College's Tarpon Springs campus, she said residents will benefit from the delegation's unanimous vote.

"I think this is a step in the right direction," Long said. "If the Legislature is concerned with consumer protection, accountability and transparency, then they'll pass this."

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

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