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Pinellas licensing board rejects Sen. Jack Latvala's plan, and he's not happy about it

Rodney Fischer, former executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, speaks during a board meeting Thursday. Fischer was already seeking a $66,000 payout for unused vacation when he told the board that he should get another $30,000 called for in his contract if he's terminated. However, Fischer stepped down at the request of a state senator and was never fired by the board. No decision was made. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Feb. 10, 2017

LARGO — Sen. Jack Latvala is not happy.

The state lawmaker became incensed Thursday after the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board rejected his plan to bring in new leadership to fix the troubled agency.

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

The governing board refused to hire Latvala's recommended choice, former county administrator Gay Lancaster, as interim executive director.

Instead, they agreed to let Anne Maddox continue running the licensing board. She is the agency's office manager and assistant to former executive director Rodney Fischer, who stepped down at the senator's request.

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

"You've go to be kidding me ...," Latvala said. "I have to see if I can fix this. It might be time to do something dramatic. I am getting my staff to look at how we can accomplish some sort of change to bring accountability and transparency to that board.

"I told the interim chairman he better hold onto his hat. It's an embarrassment for all of us Starting this afternoon, we're looking for a path to take control away from that board.

"If that means I have to get the governor involved, I will."

A series of Tampa Bay Times reports raised questions about the way the agency disciplines contractors and conducts itself. The licensing board was created by the Florida Legislature but doesn't report to county government. Only new legislation can change that.

The Pinellas County Commission wants control of the agency. But Latvala, a powerful Clearwater Republican, had opposed such legislation. He said appointing a new executive director was a good short-term solution. He also said the county's request did not meet the proper public notice requirements for proposed legislation. And he doesn't believe there's enough time to draft a new law since the legislative session starts in a few weeks.

Thursday's meeting revealed a schism on the governing board, which is comprised of eight private businessmen and six public officials. Many public board members supported hiring Lancaster. But the contractors said they wanted someone with construction experience, not a government bureaucrat.

That blindsided Latvala. He believed that Lancaster's background as a government administrator would help restore accountability at the board. She is the former director of the Juvenile Welfare Board and once served as interim county administrator when Fred Marquis stepped down in 2000.

But the contractors on the board questioned her ability to manage the licensing agency.

"What is she gonna do? Just sit and watch our staff," asked Jack Joyner, owner of Jack Joyner Heating & Air Conditioning in Clearwater.

Meanwhile, Fischer also appeared before the board on Thursday to ask that he be paid $66,000 in unused vacation time that he said the agency owes him.

His personal attorney told the board Fischer is due "administrative leave" worth another $30,000 — or three months of his former $118,000 salary. His employment contract states he is owed the money "in the event the employee is terminated by the board."

That brings the total payout Fischer now wants to about $96,000.

"My life is on hold," he told the board. "This was not by choice. I was forced out. I think I have done an excellent job as executive director."

However, Fischer was never fired by the board. It was Latvala who told him to step down, and the senator doesn't sit on the board. Fischer announced his resignation on Jan. 31.

St. Petersburg building official Rick Dunn, the board's interim chair, said board members need legal advice about county policies before making a decision.

In his closing remarks, Fischer told the group he put lots of "sweat equity" into the job he held since 2001. He criticized the Times for reporting that he approved his own time cards, saying similar county managers do the same.

"That's a county policy," Fischer said.

One board member disagreed.

"I have never approved my own time card," said Pinellas County Director of Building Services Larry Goldman. "I don't know of any bureau directors who approve their own time cards."

Board member Steve Gleaton urged the group to resolve Fischer's payout soon lest the former executive director sue his old agency.

"It just flames the fire," Gleaton said.

Fischer nodded in agreement.

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

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