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