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Soon, troubled Pinellas construction board will lose independence

By Mark Puente, Times Staff Writer
Published: March 8, 2018 Updated: March 9, 2018 at 08:17 AM
Rodney Fischer, former executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, at a February 2017 meeting. He resigned and his management of the agency was criticized by an inspector general's report. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Tampa Bay Times stories detailed how agency leaders and staff operated without oversight or accountability, disregarding agency rules and state law. Questions were also raised about whether the agency treated consumers and contractors fairly. Its leader resigned and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office had to step in to help the agency do its job.

County commissioners have been calling for the Legislature to reform the licensing board since January 2017.

"It’s a great step forward for the citizens of Pinellas County," Commission Chair Ken Welch said. "We will bring professional business regulations to the Pinellas County."

Pinellas officials are crafting a plan to put a new board of directors in place and to merge the agency into county government once it officially takes control on July 1.

One St. Petersburg contractor who clashed with the agency welcomed the changes, saying the new law was long overdue.

"It is the only thing that can be done," Bruce Simmons said. "There isn’t any usefulness left over there. They were only responsible for selective enforcement. It needs to go."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Report slams Pinellas construction licensing agency and leaders

The coming reforms will reduce the number of licensing board members from 21 to 15. It also would subject the agency to annual financial audits and make commissioners responsible for appointing board members, instead of just approving recommendations made by the former executive director.

The agency and its employees currently report to a board of mostly private contractors appointed by trade associations, not elected officials.

Some current board members have served for decades. But the new rules will prevent board members from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms. The agency will also have to produce annual reports on how it serves contractors and taxpayers.


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Pinellas licensing board leader Rodney Fischer described as a ‘bully’ and ‘suspicious’ in clashes with employees and county officials

Pinellas licensing board executive director settled hundreds of cases without getting his board’s approval

Times investigation: Pinellas County construction agency steered work to board member

Under its current structure, the agency does not receive tax money and operates solely on license fees and fines. However, it has no power to collect those fines and is owed more than $1 million, placing it in financial jeopardy.

A provision in the new law says the agency will be eligible for state funding for three years as it transitions to county government. But that doesn’t automatically mean the agency will become taxpayer-funded.

One issue that remains unresolved is how the reformed agency will work with the Sheriff’s Office to prevent unlicensed contractors from ripping off homeowners. For years, the agency failed to ask law enforcement for help taking thousands of cases to criminal court, instead preferring to punish violators with civil fines that it couldn’t compel anyone to pay.

As a result, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri launched the his own Construction Licensing Investigative Unit in August and trained deputies to investigate unlicensed contractors. Deputies have since conducted hundreds of investigations and arrested dozens of violators.

"The PCCLB was not doing its job," Gualtieri said last month after deputies arrested 26 in an undercover operation aimed at catching unlicensed contractors. "It was an ineffective system."

Gualtieri and county officials are discussing ways for the Sheriff’s Office to stay involved in that enforcement. Contracting without a license is a misdemeanor for first offenses and a felony the second time.

The Florida Legislature created the licensing board to regulate building contractors and investigate complaints against them, so only lawmakers could change how the agency is governed. It is the only board of its kind in the state. In other parts of Florida, counties handle such duties.

As a result of the Times reporting, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Pinellas County Inspector General Hector Collazo Jr. launched separate investigations. A grand jury suggested multiple ways to change board operations, and Collazo issued a blistering report on Sept. 20 that outlined 93 problems with the agency.

The report also excoriated the agency’s former executive director Rodney Fischer for, among other things, being "unconcerned with ethics, which can have a trickle-down effect on employees" and for violating "county rules and ethics requirements."

Fischer resigned in February 2017 and two investigators were forced out after the Inspector General accused them of wasting hundreds of hours of county time shopping and working out at a gym.

Board members cried foul when lawmakers wanted to reform the agency. Supporters called the 21-person board a tight-knit group of professionals. Critics called it a good old boy network that looked out for their interests, not the public interest.

Contact Mark Puente at m[email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente