Advertisement
  1. News

Sen. Jack Latvala blocks oversight efforts for Pinellas licensing board

State Sen. Jack Latvala (standing), the powerful Clearwater Republican, put a halt on Thursday to any effort to put the troubled Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board under county government. Pinellas County Commissioners were unhappy with his stance, saying the board needs more radical reform. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Feb. 3, 2017

CLEARWATER –– State Sen. Jack Latvala shocked Pinellas County commissioners on Thursday when the powerful Republican lawmaker said he would block any attempt to put the county's troubled construction licensing board under government oversight.

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

"It's a non-starter with me," Latvala said during a joint meeting of the county's commissioners and legislators. "Just because something is broken down means we have to make a dramatic fix; just because it got into trouble.

"It's not going to happen."

The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board is an independent agency that operates outside of county government. A recent series of reports by the Tampa Bay Times raised questions about the way the board disciplines contractors and how departing executive director Rodney Fischer ran the agency.

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

The Florida Legislature created the board in 1973 so only legislators can fix it. Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard proposed folding the agency under county government, an idea that seemed to gain traction when Pinellas County lawmakers met Tuesday.

But Latvala, an influential political fund-raiser from Clearwater who is mulling a run for governor, brought that effort to a halt just two days later.

His declaration surprised the county commission and legislative delegation. Latvala said contractors have complained about altering the agency, which licenses and disciplines contractors. They find the idea of creating a different regulatory structure "very scary."

Latvala said that bringing in a new executive director and changing the way board members are appointed is enough reform for now.

Fischer announced Tuesday that he'll retire after 16 years leading the agency. Its governing board is comprised of 21 members: 14 private contractors and seven local building and fire officials. The appointments are approved by the county commission, but the board runs itself and reports to no other authority.

Pinellas County Commission Chair Janet Long asked Latvala to at least be "open minded" to more oversight. The senator refused.

Commissioners wanted to model the licensing board after one in Palm Beach County that reports to government officials. They said taxpayers have complained to them about the culture and lack of oversight at the licensing board. But Latvala wouldn't budge.

"I don't think that solves a problem," said commissioner Ken Welch.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Tuesday that he considered having a grand jury examine the licensing board but decided not to because lawmakers appeared intent on taking action.

But on Thursday the county's top prosecutor said he agreed with Latvala.

"This is not something this is really broken," McCabe said. "It's a small part that was messed up. It was doing good service as far as I can tell.

"Let it simmer for a year and let's see what happens."

Latvala confirmed an account that earlier in the morning Fischer told the licensing board staff he retired as part of a "deal" to keep the agency from being placed under county oversight.

The senator said he spoke to Fischer about keeping the board autonomous but made no promises in return for the agency's longtime head stepping down. Fischer is set to retire Friday but wants five months of accrued vacation time.

Fischer "didn't have any choice," Latvala said. "He's trying to save face with the people who work for him. It was not a deal." Fischer could not be reached for comment after Thursday's meeting.

Latvala also said lawmakers can't radically overhaul a 44-year-old agency weeks before the legislative session starts. The senator said he'll be open to making more changes once an experienced administrator fixes the problems Fischer ignored.

State Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, said Latvala's move caught him "a little bit off guard." But he agreed with the senator that there's not enough time for more radical reform.

Latvala said he would use his veto power to prevent the delegation from submitting any bill reforming the licensing board. But as chairman of the Florida Senate Appropriations Committee, there is little chance a bill can become law without his support anyway.

The Pinellas County Commission was not happy with Latvala's stance.

"They (the delegation) think that it just needs physical therapy," commissioner Charlie Justice said, "where some of us think it needs surgery."

He put the onus for the licensing board's future issues on legislators, saying "they own this."

Added Long: "I guess they're not getting the complaints we are."

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

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. John Jonchuck returned to a Pinellas County courtroom last month to attend a hearing about whether he was entitled to a new trial. A judge on Tuesday ruled that he is not. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    Jonchuck was convicted of first-degree murder in April. He dropped his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck, off a bridge in 2015.
  2. Ralph Lewis Wald and wife Johnna Lynn Flores leave the Orient Road Jail on May 30, 2013, after Wald was acquitted in the fatal shooting of his wife's lover. [TIMES (2013)]  |  Tampa Bay Times
    An unidentified woman is found dead at their Brandon house. At the same time, the medical examiner confirms the wife has died.
  3. This satellite image shows Hurricane Michael on Oct. 9, 2018, as it enters the Gulf of Mexico. It made landfall near Mexico Beach in the Panhandle as a Category 5 storm. [Photo courtesy of NOAA] NOAA
    Nearly a year after the storm, 18,000 claims are still open.
  4. Falo Kane, 32, of Clearwater, was being held in lieu of $320,000 bail in connection with sexual assaults on older women, police said. [CLEARWATER POLICE DEPARTMENT]  |  Clearwater Police Department
    One of the victims was in a wheelchair and another was a disabled stroke patient, police said.
  5. An eighth-grade boy can be seen punching a seventh-grader in a locker room in this screenshot from a video taken inside a Polk County middle school. Twitter
    A black student was slammed to the floor and punched repeatedly by a white classmate following a physical education class last week at Blake Academy in Lakeland.
  6. Workers refuel the tank at a gas station in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. U.S. President Donald Trump declared Monday that it "looks" like Iran was behind the explosive attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities. He stressed that military retaliation was not yet on the table in response to the strike against a key U.S. Mideast ally. AMR NABIL  |  AP
    Even before Tuesday’s reversal in prices, economists downplayed the prospect that the price spike could send the economy reeling.
  7. Watermans Crossing apartments at 4515 N. Rome Avenue in Tampa. Westside Capital Group
    Jakub Hejl discovered the Tampa Bay area while studying at IMG Academy.
  8. Greco Middle School in Temple Terrace has 183 more students this school year than last. Middle schools grew in enrollment this year, while elementary schools lost more than 1,200 students.  [Times | 2013]
    The 20 day count shows ever more crowding in southeast Hillsborough.
  9. Snowden published his book, “Permanent Record,” without submitting it for a pre-publication review, in violation of non-disclosure agreements he signed with both the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency, the Justice Department alleges. Image by Archive
    Snowden published his book, “Permanent Record,” without submitting it for a pre-publication review.
  10. Eboni Wiley, left, testifies Monday in the murder trial of ex-boyfriend Granville Ritchie. Wiley was supposed to be caring for 9-year-old Felecia Williams the day the girl disappeared. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Eboni Wiley testifies that she’s telling the truth now about events surrounding the 2014 disappearance of Felecia Williams.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement