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Pinellas board makes controversial decision. Could showdown loom with elected officials?

A war of words erupts in letters from the county administrator and a top human resource employee.
The Pinellas County Courthouse is seen in this undated Google Earth image.
The Pinellas County Courthouse is seen in this undated Google Earth image. [ Google Earth ]
Published Mar. 10, 2020
Updated Mar. 11, 2020

It’s a familiar theme in Pinellas County: A little-known public board makes a controversial decision and top officials accuse the board of operating in secrecy. A battle typically follows.

That’s what’s smoldering around the county’s Personnel Board’s decision last week to appoint an interim director over the Human Resources Department. The man they appointed, Jack Loring, is related to a board member, who never disclosed the tie before voting.

Related: Pinellas board member appointed son-in-law to top HR job, didn’t disclose conflict

Now, Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke, Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, county administrator Barry Burton and others say the Personnel Board should have consulted them before picking a temporary leader.

“It casts doubt on whether he is the best candidate for the role,” Burke said in a public meeting Monday. “We certainly have the option of weighing in.”

The controversy involves another case in which the Legislature created an unusual board specifically for Pinellas County that is now accused of operating in secret and not consulting other public officials.

The Legislature’s creation of the board in 1977 allowed for 10 appointing authorities -- including the clerk of the circuit court, county administrator, county attorney, property appraiser, supervisor of elections, tax collector and others -- to provide oversight of the Personnel Board. The authorities have about 3,100 employees in the personnel system.

A section of the law says the director shall come from applicants recommended by a screening panel established by the county administrator, clerk of the circuit court, property appraiser, tax collector and supervisor of elections. It does not mention an interim director.

The Pinellas set up is not common in Florida’s 66 other counties.

Lawmakers created the Pinellas system to insulate employees from a politically charged atmosphere. It also protects workers from being pressured by political figures and prohibits them from engaging in political activity while on the job, the then St. Petersburg Times reported in 1992.

The need for a new director came after Holly Schoenherr resigned last week amid poor performance reviews.

During Monday’s meeting called by Burton, the other officials authorized him to draft a letter to the seven-member Personnel Board, calling out the lack of transparency and process it used to select Loring. The decision to pick Loring surprised appointing authorities, they said Monday.

“It raised concerns on my part,” Burton told the group, which voted to hire an outside firm to recruit permanent candidates for the opening.

In a letter sent Tuesday, Burton said officials were “disappointed" the board didn’t seek input from appointing authorities and it seemed that Ricardo Davis, the chair of the Personnel Board, “specifically chose not to be transparent or conduct a cooperative process.”

Added Burton: “To blatantly ignore input from the Appointing Authorities is disrespectful and does not serve our County well.”

The appointing authorities, Burton said, will give the Personnel Board a list of candidates for interim director prior to the board’s April 2 meeting, the letter said.

Davis did not respond to a request for comment. But Paul Rogers, the board member who voted to appoint his step son-in-law, said Monday that Davis never informed the board about Loring and rushed Loring’s appointment through the process. Rogers said he planned to resign.

Verbal sparring erupted later Tuesday after Terri Wallace, the assistant human resource director, accused Burke, Clark and Burton of trying to pressure County Attorney Jewel White to change her interpretation over how the Personnel Board named an interim director.

After the trio repeatedly challenged White in the meeting Monday, White agreed to “take it back and look at it again,” Wallace’s letter stated.

“This is pressure from highly influential Appointing Authorities,” Wallace wrote. “This appears to be usurping your authority in the role you have. This is indicative of the kind of pressure that has been put on Holly Schoenherr over the last three years.”

Wallace also told White that the Personnel Board has routinely named the assistant director as the interim director during any vacancy period. But Davis received requests to not name her as the interim, Wallace said, adding the appointing authorities want to override the board and law.

Wallace said officials have another reason to exercise influence. The letter said several appointing authorities have been “questionably involved in important situations” and Wallace has asked for internal investigations.

“I believe that one of the first things that will happen is for the preferred candidate (either Interim or permanent) to terminate my employment,” the letter stated.

The concerns mirror prior scandals in 2017 and 2018 involving boards with similar beginnings. State laws established the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board and two local career placement agencies. Troubles emerged after two Tampa Bay Times’ investigations exposed how the agencies mismanaged finances and disregarded its own rules — while being overseen by boards of industry professionals appointed by elected officials.

As the Times revealed problems, battles raged between the boards and elected officials over who didn’t provide oversight. In 2018, Florida lawmakers abolished the construction board’s independence and placed it under county control.

Related: Report slams Pinellas construction licensing agency and leaders
Related: Feds cite 'blatant non-compliance,' fakery and $17 million in questionable spending at embattled Tampa Bay CareerSource offices

Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice said problems differed among each board, but the current issues show a need for increased transparency. He said he plans to ask the County Attorney’s Office about how much ethical training the Personnel Board received.

“It’s a continual process for the need for more oversight," Justice said. "It’s important.”

Pinellas County Commission Chair Pat Gerard said problems with boards created by lawmakers 45 years ago are not unique only to one county.

“It’s not all that clear who is supposed to be in charge,” Gerard said about the personnel system.