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.
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.
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 email@example.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente