Advertisement
  1. News

Pinellas construction licensing board to be focus of grand jury probe

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Friday his office will launch an investigation into the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. That was prompted by the governing board's failure Thursday to approve a new interim director to take over the agency. The former executive director was Rodney Fischer (standing), who announced his resignation Jan. 31 after a series of Tampa Bay Times articles that raised questions about the way the agency disciplines contractors and conducts itself. Fisher appeared at Thursday's meeting to tell the governing board it owes him a $96,000 payout. No decision was made on that matter. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Feb. 15, 2017

Pinellas County's top prosecutor has decided to open a criminal investigation into the local construction licensing board, which has been embroiled in controversy since a series of Tampa Bay Times reports raised questions about the agency's conduct.

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

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said he has begun the process of convening a grand jury after the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board on Thursday refused to hire an interim director from outside the agency.

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

Instead, the governing board chose to hand the reigns to a longtime agency employee.

McCabe called the board's decision "puzzling."

"I was dumbfounded," he said Friday. "It made me think that they think it's a club and not a public agency. We're going to look into it. There's certainly issues we need to look at."

Sen. Jack Latvala, an influential state lawmaker, had supported allowing the agency to remain autonomous from county oversight as long as it hired former county administrator Gay Lancaster as interim executive director.

Rodney Fischer, the agency's longtime executive director, resigned after the Times series revealed several problems with the way he managed the agency.

But the agency's governing board on Thursday rejected Latvala's choice. Board members instead chose to let Anne Maddox, the office manager and Fischer's former assistant, continue to run the licensing board.

Latvala was not pleased. In a letter to McCabe, the senator said the actions of board members shows they don't want outsiders "becoming involved in the actions of the agency." He called it a "shame."

He said he was particularly troubled by the divide between public officials on the board who wanted to hire Lancaster to help restore accountability to the public agency, and the private contractors on the board who supported Maddox. The contractors said they preferred an interim director with construction experience, not Lancaster, a government bureaucrat.

Lancaster is an experienced government official. She was the former director of the Juvenile Welfare Board and once served as interim Pinellas County administrator when Fred Marquis stepped down in 2000.

"It is our job to serve the interests of the public, and I believe the public needs to know the truth about the board," Latavala wrote in a letter to McCabe encouraging him to open an investigation.

St. Petersburg building official Rick Dunn, the board's interim chair, said "he is very disappointed and frustrated" the board did not hire Lancaster on Thursday.

The Pinellas County Attorney's Office, Dunn said, told him he did not have the power to override the board's decision and hire Lancaster. Dunn said he will call for another vote to consider Lancaster, but a meeting date has not been set.

"I've requested a special meeting to urge the board to approve the appointment immediately," Dunn said Friday.

Board member Jack Joyner, owner of Jack Joyner Heating & Air Conditioning in Clearwater, said he welcomed McCabe's investigation.

"If they feel that is what they need to do, let them do it," said Joyner, who has sat on the board for at least 20 years. "I've sat here for decades. I've got nothing to hide. There's no games going on."

The licensing board has operated without government oversight since the Florida Legislature created it in 1973, and only the Legislature can change that. The Times investigation revealed problems with an agency that doesn't report to any other government body, only itself.

The Times found that a subgroup of the board, called a probable cause committee, played fast and loose with the rules for handling complaints and disciplining contractors.

Some contractors believe the committee targets the agency's critics, while consumers complained that the licensing board was not transparent with the way it handled their complaints or public records requests.

Fischer, who earned $118,000 a year, also clashed with his employees and butted heads with county officials.

The Pinellas County Commission wants control of the agency, but Latvala had opposed any legislation that would give them control. He said bringing in new leadership was enough of a fix for now. Time was also an issue, Latvala said, because the county's request did not meet the proper public notice requirements for proposed legislation and there wasn't enough time to draft a new law with the legislative session just weeks away.

The senator stressed Friday that he was not trying to protect anyone at the licensing board and was only following the state rules for proposed legislation. To the best of his recollection, Latvala said he has "never received complaints" about the licensing board –– until recently.

"I feed bad about this," he said. "I've never done one iota of business with the board. We needed to follow the law.

"I'm done with them. They don't want outsiders in there. We gave them the opportunity to clean it up."

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

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Eric McNeil Jr., 25, faces a charge of second-degree murder and two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm, police said. Tampa Police Department
    A man was found dead on E Fowler Avenue near the railroad tracks. Now police have made an arrest.
  2. Yosvanys Infante, 29, faces a charge of first-degree murder according to police. Tampa Police Department
    Yosvanys Infante was linked to a fatal shooting that took place on Sept. 21, according to Tampa police.
  3. Parents of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a shooter killed 17 people in 2018, push petitions for 2020 ban on assault weapons in Florida. (Miami Herald) MIAMI HERALD  |
    After months of glitches, the Department of State is resorting to a paper workaround while ballot initiatives face higher costs.
  4. Guests of the Flying Bridge at the Tradewinds Resort, which is now under new ownership. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times]
    The new owner says he plans to keep its management and 1,100 employees.
  5. Former Pasco County Corrections Officer Wendy Miller, 57 runs towards gunfire with instructor Chris Squitieri during active shooter drills taught by Pasco County Sheriff's Office at Charles S. Rushe Middle School in Land O' Lakes. These drills are put are a larger training program for the Guardian program that will staff elementary schools with trained armed guards.  LUIS SANTANA   |   Times "LUIS SANTANA  |  TIMES"  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The change is a reversal of a previous move by the department, which specifically excluded armed teachers from its policy.
  6. A vistor at Harvest Moon Fun Farm's grabs a pumpkin from the pumpkin patch in Masaryktown. ANGELIQUE HERRING  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Things to do for Halloween in Pasco and Hernando counties
  7. Dr. Harvey Partridge and his wife Pat were killed when their plane crashed on approach to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Harvey Partridge founded St. Petersburg's Partridge Animal Hospital in 1978. This photo was posted in 2017 to the hospital's Facebook page. St. Petersburg's Partridge Animal Hospital Facebook page
    Harvey and Pat Partridge’s plane disappeared from the airport radar. The wreckage was found the next day.
  8. The University of South Florida has earned national accolades for its push to raise graduation rates. Student loan debt in Florida is so crushing that it makes it hard to afford a house.
    Staggering debt loads make it hard to buy a home.
  9. A meteor is seen streaking left to right above the constellation Orion in the early hours of Dec. 14, 2012 in the sky above Tyler, Texas.  The metor is part of the Geminid meteor shower, which is peaking tonight.  As many as 50 per hour are being seen.  The meteors radiate from the region of sky containing the constellation Gemini which give them their name.  (AP Photo/Dr. Scott M. Lieberman) DR. SCOTT M. LIEBERMAN  |  AP
    Considered one of “most beautiful meteor showers of the year” by NASA, the Orionids are expected to peak Monday night into Tuesday morning.
  10. Bayonet Point Middle School teacher Cynthia Thompson wants to become Pasco County schools superintendent. Courtesy of Cynthia Thompson
    Cynthia Thompson is a graduation enhancement instructor at Bayonet Point Middle School.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement