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Children's Board members call for president to step down

Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 08:29 PM

TAMPA Several members of the governing body of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County called today for the firing of embattled Chief Executive Luanne Panacek.

Panacek, who has been criticized for awarding no-bid contracts and whose leadership and ethics have been questioned by employees, still wants to lead to the organization.

"I would like to stay here," Panacek told board members at a workshop Thursday. "You’ve allowed me to do the job of a lifetime. I think I’ve done a very good job. But the last year has been the most difficult time of my life."

County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who sits on the board of the taxpayer-funded agency, said firing Panacek and replacing several of her lieutenants may be the only way to improve employee morale.

"The only way trust and confidence is restored is when there’s new direction and new leadership," Beckner said. "It’s time we headed toward that direction. I would strongly recommend the board take action as soon as possible."

Board Chairman Chris Brown said he is leaning toward not renewing Panacek’s contract, which expires in October. Board member John Evon agreed with Beckner and Brown.

"To me, it’s time for a change," Evon said.

Because it was a workshop, the 10-member board took no action. Instead, members scheduled a meeting for 4 p.m. Aug. 9 to decide Panacek’s fate.

Panacek is paid $171,000 a year to run the board, which provides money to 11 county agencies that offer programs to children and families.

But over the past year, faith in her leadership has eroded, according to an independent audit.

About 92 percent of the rank-and-file employees have lost confidence in top administrators, which has led to an atmosphere auditors described as "chaos."

The audit, released hours before today’s workshop, focuses on human resources and management.

Auditors with Invictus Human Capital Management of Seffner, who were paid $10,000 to conduct the study, collected data by interviewing employees, holding focus group meetings and through an online survey.

The audit found "an organizational structure marred in crisis," a "crisis of confidence in executive leadership" and "plummeting employee morale and engagement."

Children’s Board employees are "plagued by a lack of trust and confidence" in the leadership, auditors wrote, adding that "management’s decisions are often in conflict due to systemic discord and lack of trust among the CEO’s direct reports."

Auditors found that 65 percent of the surveyed employees "believe that key members of executive leadership do not adhere to ethical standards of conduct" and that 68 percent of employees "feel that management would misrepresent a situation for personal gain."

The report said the Children’s Board leadership has significant deficiencies, including a "lack of transparency in decision-making."

"Simply stated," the audit said, "the majority of employees feel that key leaders of the executive team lack integrity and ethics."

Auditors wrote that the "danger of the current organizational crisis is the potential for key decision-makers to hunker down and try to ride out the storm in hopes that things will improve."

If the top managers do that, they run the risk of taking only "reactionary measures, none of which are significant enough to correct the downward spiral," the audit said.

Panacek told board members that she thinks she can solve those problems.

"I still believe there’s a way to move through it," she said. "I believe trust can be restored."

At a Hillsborough County Commission meeting last month, officials criticized Panacek for awarding contracts without allowing other companies to bid on them.

"Almost half a million dollars of no-bid contracts were issued," Commissioner Les Miller said at the June 6 meeting. "There was an issue of at least a $50,000 contract given to a former Children’s Board staffer."

After the commission meeting, Panacek said that although four contracts totaling $450,000 were awarded without bids, the board spent only $200,000 because the work was done in less time than expected.

The $50,000 contract was awarded to the former Children’s Board employee, Panacek said, because the person had developed financial software for the agency.

"The staff involved didn't even think about going out to bid because it would be less expensive to let the person who built it continue to make small modifications," she said.

The Children’s Board was created by taxpayers in 1988 and levies a property tax rate of 50 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value. When the housing crisis hit Hillsborough hard, the agency’s revenue dropped $10 million over the past three years.


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