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Directors take on 'leadership crisis' at Hillsborough Children's Board

Published Jul. 13, 2012

TAMPA — A report released Thursday describes a climate of distrust and strife at the taxpayer-funded Children's Board of Hillsborough County and urges its directors to take swift action to address "the executive leadership crisis."

"Simply stated, the majority of employees feel that key leaders of the executive team lack integrity and ethics," according to a summary by Invictus Human Capital Management in Seffner, which interviewed or surveyed nearly all of the roughly 55 employees.

The report stops short of recommending the agency part ways with longtime chief executive officer Luanne Panacek, who earns $171,329, but that's what several board directors said they are poised to do.

Kevin Beckner, a Hillsborough County commissioner who serves as a Children's Board director, cited his experiences with controversies involving other public officials, including a county administrator, county attorney and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit director.

"A recurring theme is present: a loss of trust and confidence," Beckner told the directors. "In each of those (cases), the only way trust and confidence was restored was when there was new leadership in place."

Board member John Evon, who had stated strong support for Panacek, said Thursday the report changed his mind. He recommended board members split with Panacek by Sept. 30, a year before her contract ends.

"It's time to do something," said Evon. "And it's for the people."

Board members scheduled a special meeting for Aug. 9 to discuss Panacek's future.

If the board votes to end Panacek's employment Sept. 30, the agency could owe her $162,111. That includes $103,836 for terminating the contract early and $58,275 in accrued leave.

Panacek said at the meeting Thursday she wants to speak with Invictus executives about their findings, many of which she said she'd been working on.

"Nobody feels more strongly about the mission than I do," said Panacek, who has been at the Children's Board nearly 17 years.

She did not offer to step down, adding that she believes she can work through the problems.

"I would like to stay here," she said. "I really think I've done a good job. And the last year has been the most difficult of my life."

Panacek has come under fire in recent months, starting with the revelation she allowed a friend to come into the public building on a Sunday and "bless" it with holy oil. Remnants of the oil were still on desks the next day, leading confused staffers to call police.

The Tampa Bay Times raised questions about nearly $500,000 in no-bid contracts that went to people with connections to the Children's Board, including $201,825 over six years for Bamboo Kazoo, a production company whose owner is a personal friend of Panacek's.

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About 15 staffers later sent emails to board Chairman Chris Brown complaining of low morale and a culture of retribution, even levying accusations that top executives doctored documents.

Invictus officials looked at past studies commissioned by the board since 2000. Every one of them has shown problems with internal communication, a failure to implement policies and "a slow erosion of employee confidence," said Invictus co-founder Michael Stephens.

But board members, past and present, did not shake things up. Stephens said it was a function of a board made up of people with full-time jobs who can't keep daily tabs on operations.

"Some of you didn't know what you didn't know," he said.

According to the report, a survey of employees found that:

• 92 percent are frustrated with their work environment.

• 75 percent don't feel leadership handles poor performance or inappropriate behavior.

• 50 percent think the Children's Board "doesn't operate with values or ethics."

Board members commissioned the $10,000 staffing audit in April. Last month, county commissioners voted to request a state audit of the $35 million-a-year agency's finances. Three weeks later, directors of the Children's Board voted to seek an independent financial audit of its own.

The Invictus report warns of the danger of trying to "hunker down and try to ride out the storm in hopes that things will improve."

Stephens said the decade-old problems at the Children's Board reached a "crescendo," in part when the County Commission voted unanimously to request a financial audit.

"How long do you believe the organization can weather the current storm?" he asked.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at or (813) 226-3374.