PACE financing practices come under fire from Hillsborough commission after 8 On Your Side report

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Posted: Jun 20, 2018 04:28 PM EDT

Updated: Jun 20, 2018 06:32 PM EDT

 

 

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The managers of Ygrene Energy Fund, a company that finances home improvement projects in Hillsborough County, will be fired if they don’t put consumer safeguards in place, county commissioners warned Wednesday.

“I just hope it doesn’t happen again,” said Hillsborough Commission Chair Sandra Murman. “Because if it does, we’re going to have to figure out a way to end this relationship.”

Ygrene is one of several financial institutions that provide loans through Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, and operate with an approved list of contractors.

Wednesday, Ygrene’s Director of Government Relations told commissioners her company has fired the contractor we’ve been investigating since April for deceptive sales practices.

“The only update I can share with you is we have terminated this contractor in our program,” said Kate Wesner.

PACE enables homeowners with poor credit to obtain home improvement loans and pay through a special assessment on their property tax bill, but critics say consumers end up with bulging tax bills that they can’t afford, which put them in danger of losing their homes.

PACE business practices have come under intense scrutiny since our 8 On Your Side investigation revealed that two men who went to prison for organized fraud were working for one of the contractors that provide home improvements under the Ygrene/PACE banner.

The investigation, which was verified by Hillsborough Consumer Services, also revealed that Summitwood Works LLC, owned by Neal Scoppettuolo was misleading consumers about defective roofs and misrepresenting the company as a government entity.

The swindlers, Carlton Dunko and Frank Pureber, were hired to work on Scoppettuolo’s sales and marketing team. Dunko even lives with Scoppettuolo.

Ygrene first learned of Scoppettuolo’s association with the two con artists a year ago but failed to act until months after we started reporting on his misleading business practices in Pasco, Hillsborough and Collier counties.

At Wednesday’s commission meeting, Wesner told commissioners Ygrene terminated Scoppettuolo as an approved contractor as soon as the company found out he was sending out false advertising and taking advantage of consumers.

But our investigation discovered Ygrene first learned of Scoppettuolo’s business relationship with convicted swindlers a year ago, and learned he was sending out deceptive advertising in April in Pasco County.

Ygrene spokesman Jaquin McPeek previously told 8 On Your Side Scoppettuolo had been “suspended” but not fired. On Wednesday, McPeek said Ygrene “terminated” Scoppettuolo “within the past few days.”

McPeek says Ygrene has been operating for five years and has a good track record of handling 20,000 PACE loans.

Hillsborough Commissioner Les Miller believes Scoppettuolo and his associates deserve more than termination for taking advantage of unsuspecting elderly and disabled customers under the auspices of the government-sanctioned PACE financing program.

“We’re not going to run them out of Hillsborough County, we’re gonna lock ’em up for the things that they do. I mean to pray on the elderly and disabled and those that are misfortunate.”

The Hillsborough County Commission told Ygrene to return July 18 to explain the company’s policies that safeguard and protect consumers from unscrupulous business practices.

Meanwhile, Hillsborough consumer protection investigators have turned over complaints against Scoppettuolo and Summitwood to the Hillsborough State Attorney’s office for possible criminal prosecution.

 

Hillsborough wants Tampa to take over some roads; Buckhorn says no

 

By Christopher O’Donnell, Times Staff Writer

 

Published: June 8, 2018

Updated: June 8, 2018 at 05:03 PM

 

TAMPA — Rejected by the city of Tampa, road safety advocates this week turned to Hillsborough County commissioners in their campaign for more traffic calming measures and bike lanes on Bay to Bay Boulevard.

But while the county owns the road, it has virtually no say over it — nor over another 60 miles of county-owned roads that lie within the city.

That has commissioners suggesting it may be time to transfer them to the city.

“The bigger problem is we’re going to get caught in the middle on every county road project in the city that needs major changes to it like pedestrian crosswalks and safe streets,” said Commission Chairwoman Sandy Murman. “Unfortunately, our hands are tied on this and legally tied on what we can do.”

But the idea may be dead on arrival: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the city has no interest in taking ownership of county roads.

“They’ve been trying to sell us that broken-down car for a year,” Buckhorn said. “They can look at it all they want. Why would the city take over roads that are in disrepair?”

The brewing dispute could make it tougher for the county and city to reach a new maintenance agreement when their current deal expires at the end of September.

The county came to own roads within the city when they were transferred from state ownership decades ago. They include major thoroughfares like West Shore Boulevard, Columbus Drive and a section of Waters Avenue.

Under the current deal, the county pays for major maintenance like resurfacing, which for future projects is projected to cost $125,000 per lane mile.

The city’s responsibility is to mow grass, fix sidewalks and potholes, and operate and enforce traffic signals. But the city also chips in when it wants additional safety features like pedestrian crosswalks added to maintenance projects.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill acknowledged that the county would have to bring its roads up to a certain standard before they could be transferred to the city.

But Buckhorn said even then it would be unlikely the city would want to take on a long-term commitment to pay for their upkeep. The county has budgeted about $25 million this year for major road maintenance projects.

Residents and road safety advocates including non-profit advocacy group Walk Bike Tampa were among those seeking bike lanes and other traffic calming measures, including a Bay to Bay resurfacing project that’s expected to start this fall.

They renewed those calls recently after a mother and daughter were struck and killed on Bayshore Boulevard, also a county road.

The county is paying $650,000 toward construction of Bay to Bay while the city will chip in $120,000. The plan includes an additional turn lane at Bay-to-Bay and Bayshore and narrower lanes between Dale Mabry Hwy. and Esperanza Ave.

But the city refused to include bike lanes, arguing that the road is too busy and that parallel roads like Euclid and El Prado boulevards would be safer for those riding bicycles.

“Not every road is equipped nor should be a road that has a bike lane,” Buckhorn said.

John Lyons, the public works manager for Hillsborough County, said it might be more efficient if the two agencies were each responsible for their own roads. At the same time, Lyons said, the area’s road network needs to function seamlessly whether drivers are in the city or the county.

“It’s a grid system,” he said, “so the grid has to work together regardless of the jurisdiction of the road.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

 

Hillsborough shelves plan for nine-member commission, but voters may still face changes

 

By Christopher O’Donnell, Times Staff Writer

 

Published: June 6, 2018

Updated: June 6, 2018 at 04:39 PM

 

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners have shelved, at least for now, a plan to overhaul the structure of the commission, likely averting a political fight along party lines.

Commission Chairwoman Sandy Murman on Wednesday withdrew her proposal to eliminate countywide seats and, instead, create nine single-member districts. The idea, which required approval by voters, was opposed by Democrats on the commission who saw it as a political move to protect the Republican’s majority on the board.

But the commission is pushing ahead with a proposal to switch from partisan to non-partisan the elections for sheriff, property appraiser and other offices established in the state Constitution.

This move also was opposed by the commission’s two Democrats, Les Miller and Pat Kemp, and passed with votes from the commission’s five Republicans. If ballot language is approved by a majority of commissioners later this month, the issue will go to voters in the November general election.

It was Murman’s single-member district plan that most alarmed Democrats.

Hillsborough’s 1.4 million people now are represented by seven county commissioners — four elected in equally apportioned single-member districts and three elected countywide. The mix of district and countywide seats was intended to give residents a say in both their local communities and the county as a whole.

Citizens now vote in four of the seven commission races, equivalent to a majority of the board, but under Murman’s plan would vote for just one candidate for a board of nine members.

Murman called the move a response to the county’s fast-growing population. In her District 1 seat, which covers South Tampa and western Hillsborough County, she represents some 400,000 constituents. She would like to see each commissioner represent no more than about 150,000 residents.

Her plan was blasted by the Hillsborough League of Women Voters as too transforming to rush onto the November ballot, as Murman planned.

The group also warned that commissioners would end up clashing over projects in their respective districts without focusing on the county as a whole and that allowing the commission the final say on district boundaries would amount to a conflict of interest.

Murman acknowledged at the board meeting Wednesday that her idea still needed some work.

“It appeared to me there might have been some confusion about what it all means,” she said.

She still plans to push for a change in the makeup of the commission to present voters as early as 2020, taking effect after data is available from the 2020 Census for redrawing existing districts.

“We need to bring districts closer to the people,” Murman said.

A public hearing will be held June 20 on the plan to make the county’s constitutional offices non-partisan and on Miller’s proposal to raise the percentage needed for a countywide referendum to pass to 60 percent. If both proposals go to a referendum, they would need only a simple majority to pass.

The countywide races for tax collector and sheriff often are used by political parties as proof of their support in the community and to build momentum. In 2016, Democrats won all four countywide races on the general election ballot, with victories for incumbents Bob Henriquez in the property appraiser’s race and Clerk of the Court Pat Frank and a surprise victory in the state attorney’s race for newcomer Andrew Warren.

The offices of state attorney and public defender would remain partisan races under the proposal the county is advancing.

Kemp said she voted against switching to non-partisan races because people tend to be more engaged when party affiliation is declared on the ballot and the process produces better candidates.

She also noted that there has been no call from the public for a change and questioned why Republicans want to make it possible for their candidates to run for office without a party label.

“I imagine at one time identifying as a Republican may have helped you in that position and maybe no longer does,” Kemp said.

Republican Commissioner Ken Hagan said the idea has always made sense to him.

“I do not understand the relevance of a partisan tax collector or sheriff,” he said. “I certainly do not want a partisan elections supervisor.”

 

Payroll records show $3.1 million in bonuses, incentives at CareerSource centers

 

 

By Mark Puente and Zachary T. Sampson, Times Staff Writers

 

Published: May 16, 2018

Updated: May 16, 2018 at 05:06 PM

 

Two Tampa Bay jobs centers have paid $3.1 million in incentives and bonuses in recent years to employees who helped them record more hirings than any workforce board in Florida.

The payout total for CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay includes $1.2 million in annual bonuses, with $40,000 going to former president and CEO Edward Peachey, and another $1.9 million to employees who helped the agencies boost their placement numbers since 2014.

For months, board members and elected officials have asked if any CareerSource employee benefitted financially from logging more placements. Administrators batted away the concerns, saying the incentive program was complicated and nobody made significant money from higher jobs numbers.

But detailed payroll records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times after repeated requests over several weeks show those statements were misleading. Several dozen employees earned thousands more each year if they hit placement benchmarks approved by Peachey, who then touted the figures to state and local officials.

 

The payments raise more questions as the U.S. Department of Labor and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity try to determine whether the centers inflated hiring reports to the state.

“I couldn’t believe that there were exorbitant amounts of money,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner and CareerSource Tampa Bay board member Sandy Murman. “What did we get for those incentive dollars? Is it the thousands of jobs that were misreported?”

During a public meeting earlier this year, Peachey told reporters he created the incentive structure but did not know if Florida’s other workforce boards had similar programs.

They do not. A recent payroll study conducted by an outside firm for the local jobs centers could not find another workforce agency with a similar incentive program.

Peachey was fired last month, but the incentive system remains as interim leaders try to rebuild the agencies.

Peachey’s attorney, Marion Hale, said Peachey did not pay “incentives for placements.”

“During the normal course of business, bonuses and incentives were paid to employees as their salaries were kept low and the extra payments were to incentivize them to provide excellent service,” Hale wrote in a statement.

As a result of the Times’ reporting on CareerSource, the DEO will now require workforce boards to make their compensation structure public, spokeswoman Tiffany Vause wrote in a statement.

 

“Protecting the taxpayers’ dollars and ensuring transparency and accountability in the workforce system continues to be the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s highest priority,” the statement said.

“We expect all local workforce boards to act with integrity and to effectively and efficiently use taxpayers’ dollars to carry out their missions. CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay need to be forthcoming.”

  • • •

The CareerSource offices receive millions in federal tax dollars each year to train and connect people to employers.

During Peachey’s eight-year tenure running both agencies, they were hailed for how many people they put to work, routinely ranking higher than the state’s other 22 job centers.

Since the Times started publishing stories in January about whether the agencies took credit for getting thousands of people hired who never asked for help, CareerSource officials have maintained that no employee earned significant money for logging higher placements.

 

Yet they long had a system of monthly payouts, outlined in a recent two-page “Staff Performance Incentive Grid.”

Workers could earn up to $1,400 each month, or $16,800 annually, for exceeding certain benchmarks, according to the 2017-18 policy. The starting salary for recruiters at the agency was $35,000, according to CareerSource records.

Employees who recorded 76 to 100 people placed into new jobs each month received a $200 bonus. The amount jumped to $500 for 150 hirings.

Workers could also receive a $250 bonus for quickly getting 40 people into jobs. The agencies paid another $200 if workers obtained seven hiring lists from companies, which included names of employees who got jobs but never asked for help from CareerSource. Hit the maximum in every bonus category, the monthly payout was $1,400.

Current and former CareerSource staffers have described a cut-throat environment fueled by the incentives. Recruiters, they said, chased placements to satisfy numbers-obsessed bosses and to increase their take-home pay.

The agency paid the most incentive money in October 2014 — $72,000 –– to a total of 59 employees. The annual payments decreased from $618,000 in 2014 to $233,000 in 2017, records show. More than a dozen employees told the Times the agencies increased the benchmarks in recent years to make it harder to earn the maximum incentives.

As a result, the payments went from $53,650 in February 2015 to just $5,000 in February 2018, records show.

Human resources director Alice Cobb told several board members during an April meeting that the incentive plan changed in recent years to include a minimum threshold for performance, and said at least one person was fired for not reaching the goal.

“This is a very difficult incentive plan,” she said.

Peachey approved the incentive program each year and set performance goals along with his business services director — most recently Haley Loeun, who was fired in February amid allegations that she and Peachey were romantically involved. Both denied the claims of an inappropriate relationship by current and former staffers.

Peachey also paid separate bonuses to seven employees last fall, totaling about $7,000, after they helped CareerSource Pinellas win $333,333 in Gov. Rick Scott’s statewide contest to get residents off unemployment assistance and back to work. Placements were one component in the contest, officials said.

  • • •

CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay have repeatedly declared that no employee substantially benefited from job placements.

After a public meeting in early February, Peachey told Times reporters that some employees “do receive incentives, but it wouldn’t help them to report more to the state. To inflate the numbers? No.”

 

During meetings in February and March, CareerSource attorney Charles Harris and CareerSource Tampa Bay board chair Dick Peck acknowledged the payments but didn’t provide details.

Peck declined to tell board members about incentive totals and how the program worked on Feb. 15, saying he wanted more information. Weeks later, he said the program was “nothing anybody is making a lot of money over.”

This month, Cobb told the compensation committee that more than 20 employees received incentives since 2016. She did not include totals, and no board member requested them.

The boards learned the full extent of the payments only after the Times requested detailed breakdowns.

Before providing complete records, the agencies repeatedly sent files to the Times that were inaccurate, either missing information or containing duplicate payments for some employees.

 

Interim leaders attributed the erroneous reports to not being able to reach their part-time payroll coordinator, a former high-ranking employee, who earns $50 an hour working from her home in Apollo Beach.

Murman, the Hillsborough commissioner, said the county has had trouble getting accurate records from the agencies.

“It’s so difficult to untangle the mess that was made with the employees and payroll and services,” Murman said.

  • • •

In the past four years, the local CareerSource agencies have not paid across-the-board raises to staffers. Instead, they handed out annual bonuses for up to 5 percent of workers’ salaries, records show.

Managers determined payouts based on job performance. They also received the biggest bonuses each year.

In the past four years, Peachey’s bonuses averaged about $10,000 annually. Loeun earned a total of $21,500 — the third-most of all employees, payroll records show. In 2017, she received $6,500, the second-highest behind Peachey.

Neither of them responded to a request for comment.

The year-end performance bonuses are not directly tied to placements like the incentive payments for recruiters. But Peachey, records show, touted the placements when requesting a raise in early 2015.

“That’s what you have to look at,” Peachey said, according to an audio recording of a meeting with board members. “Are we doing what the state and feds want us to do? Are we effective? I think the answer to that is yes.”

The DEO said it will hold officials accountable for any wrongdoing uncovered in the investigations. Investigators have said they have “reasonable suspicion” of potential criminal conduct, though they have not tied that to the incentive program.

 

“We continue to remain committed to executing a full and thorough investigation and we will hold any failure to act ethically and responsibly, fully accountable,” Vause wrote in her statement.

 

Mosaic To Relocate Headquarters To Hillsborough County

The Mosaic Company announced late Monday that it intends to move its corporate headquarters to Hillsborough County

By Don Johnson, Patch National Staff | May 14, 2018 7:10 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2018 7:43 pm ET

 

TAMPA, FL – The Mosaic Company announced late Monday that it intends to move its corporate headquarters, including senior executives and related functions, from Plymouth, Minn. to Hillsborough County. Details of the move, including timing, the exact location of the corporate office and the number of employees to be relocated, remain under consideration.

“Mosaic is among the largest employers and most significant corporate economic drivers in Central Florida,” said Mosaic President and CEO Joc O’Rourke. “We believe locating our corporate office there will give us opportunities to amplify Mosaic’s presence (in Central Florida) and engage more closely with communities where we operate. With the cost savings we expect to achieve and the closer proximity to our Mosaic Fertilizantes business in Brazil, this move will drive improved efficiency and good value.”

Mosaic is a Fortune 500 company with over 100 years of phosphate mining history in the U.S. It is the world’s largest combined producer of potash and phosphates, two vital plant nutrients. Mosaic already had its largest domestic presence in Florida, where it employs 3,000 Floridians and an additional 3,000 contractors.

During the 2017 calendar year, Mosaic’s economic impact in Florida included a $465 million in payroll.

“We are thrilled that Mosaic is moving its corporate headquarters to Hillsborough County,” said Sandy Murman, chair of the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners. “Mosaic has had a significant presence here for a century, directly employing thousands of county residents and supporting tens of thousands of jobs related to the phosphate and fertilizer industry and at Port Tampa Bay. In addition to helping to drive our local economy, Mosaic has contributed millions of dollars and countless volunteer hours over the past several decades to local nonprofit organizations. We thank Mosaic for strengthening their commitment to our community and look forward to supporting them as they establish their headquarters in Hillsborough County.”

In recent years, the company significantly expanded its business into South America, acquiring Archer Daniels Midland Company’s fertilizer distribution business in Brazil and Paraguay in 2014 and Vale Fertilizantes in Brazil in 2018.

The company said the move will allow it to reconsider its U.S. office footprint, including its spaces in Plymouth, as well as its FishHawk and Highland Oaks locations in Florida. As a result of the company’s transformation in recent years, excess office space exists at those locations, according to a press release.

“We will execute this move with as little disruption as possible and with sensitivity to our employees’ personal situations,” O’Rourke said. “Mosaic is fortunate to have a deeply talented workforce, and we fully intend to maintain that competitive advantage.”

“Recruiting corporate headquarters is a top priority of our three-year strategic plan,” said Alan F. List, chairman of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation and president and CEO of Moffitt Cancer Center. “Mosaic’s selection of Hillsborough County proves that this community offers the business climate, talent, cost advantages, and quality of life that a Fortune 500 global headquarters operation requires. We will be delighted to welcome Mosaic’s relocated team and look forward to helping them discover everything they need to thrive here.”

 

Partner jobs centers in Tampa Bay planning a breakup

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, the vice chair at CareerSource Tampa Bay, wants the agency split from CareerSource Pinellas. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

 

Mark Puente

Zachary T. Sampson

Times staff writers

 

Published: May 3, 2018

Updated: May 3, 2018 at 04:40 PM

 

TAMPA –– Leaders at a Hillsborough County employment center voted unanimously on Thursday to cut ties with its Pinellas sister agency after working under one leader for eight years to help people find jobs.

For weeks, board members of CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay have debated whether to split the agencies or keep operating them together. The executive committee at CareerSource Tampa Bay, which serves Hillsborough County, made the decision itself Thursday. It will take effect by July 1.

“We’re separating,” board chair Dick Peck said. “We’re going forward.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, the vice chair of the jobs center board, called it “a new day.” She said county human resource officials will help the agency rebuild.

Former CEO Edward Peachey merged operations after taking the helm of CareerSource Tampa Bay in 2010. He had led the Pinellas jobs center since 2003, but was ousted from both positions weeks ago amid state and federal investigations into whether the agencies inflated their performance in state reports.

The Hillsborough executive committee also voted on Thursday to remove Peachey’s name and all references to him from agency forms, social media accounts and the website.

CareerSource Tampa Bay plans to create a new organization chart and ask employees and outside jobseekers to apply for new positions. It will begin a nationwide search for a new CEO.

“The sooner we get this process started, the better off we’ll be,” Murman said.

The two agencies have cooperated under a unique shared-services structure. Employees technically work for the Pinellas organization, with CareerSource Tampa Bay reimbursing its partner for salaries of staffers who work in both counties.

“We have no employees,” Peck said. “Pinellas to me is an employment leasing company. We’re their biggest customer.”

The centers receive millions in federal tax dollars annually to help people find work. They report to separate boards made up of people from education, business, government and labor groups. Peck said Hillsborough has a greater need for IT and agricultural jobs, while Pinellas depends more on manufacturing and tourism.

Board members acknowledged that the split will cause headaches because many top employees perform work for each jobs center. One administrator, for example, oversees human resource at both.

“We relied on Pinellas for everything, pretty much,” Murman said. “And that wasn’t the right way to go.”

 

They were supposed to watch over CareerSource. Many didn’t show up

 

 

By Mark Puente and

Zachary T. SampsonTimes staff writer

 

Published: May 2, 2018

Updated: May 2, 2018 at 09:10 AM

 

With millions of tax dollars at stake, the board members of two local job centers are supposed to attend quarterly meetings to scrutinize spending and policy decisions.

But many members rarely bother to show up, the Tampa Bay Times has found.

Dozens missed at least half of their CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay meetings since 2014, according to an analysis of agency records. Several, in fact, never showed up at all.

“They should be dropped,” said Pinellas board member and electrician Tom Bedwell, who attends most meetings. “They’re not helping anybody. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

The lax oversight is one reason why both jobs centers have come under federal and state investigations.

The U.S. Department of Labor and Florida Department of Economic Opportunity are investigating “allegations of serious misconduct and potential criminal conduct” and whether the centers inflated the number of job placements reported under former president and CEO Edward Peachey.

In recent weeks, federal auditors have pored over financial records and interviewed employees and board members.

CareerSource board members blame the lax attendance on the boards being too big, each with more than 30 positions, making it hard to talk at meetings or have much influence. All members are unpaid volunteers.

Several also criticized a policy that allows members to call into the meetings. Technical glitches make it hard to hear, participate in the discussions and record votes, they said.

At least seven board members disputed the attendance figures, pointing to the agencies’ poor record keeping.

None who spoke to the Times expressed regret for not providing better oversight.

Ultimately, the boards are appointed by and answer to the Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissions. Commissioners in each county said that federal labor officials told them that no other workforce boards operate with such little oversight.

Both commissions are now making current CareerSource board members reapply.

“At least half of the members don’t come and another third are on the phone where you really don’t have much participation,” Pinellas commissioner Pat Gerard said. “It’s ridiculous.”

  • • •

The Tampa Bay jobs centers are part of a network of 24 CareerSource centers across Florida tasked with putting people to work.

They are both publicly-funded nonprofits overseen by separate boards, which include members from education, business, government and labor organizations. The full boards meet four times a year, barring emergencies.

CareerSource Tampa Bay, which serves Hillsborough County, has 35 positions; Pinellas has 45. Open positions typically go unfilled for months. Federal law requires the boards to maintain a balance of representatives from different segments of the regional economy and government, which contributes to the board’s size.

County commissioners have final say over appointments, but in recent years they have offered little scrutiny to board applicants and performance. That has allowed a number of members to rack up spotty attendance records.

In its last eight meetings, the CareerSource Pinellas board has only once had more members physically in the room than absent or on the phone. Just 10 members of the CareerSource Tampa Bay board showed up to a meeting in December. Nineteen did not.

Pinellas Schools Superintendent Michael Grego missed every meeting in the last three years. He said he must juggle several board positions across the county. In April, after the Times asked questions, he resigned his position and recommended a subordinate take his place.

 

Pinellas member David Fries, a university scientist and business owner, last attended a meeting in person in March 2016, according to records. Fries moved a few years ago to Pensacola, he said, but has remained on the board by phoning into meetings. He didn’t participate weeks ago when the board voted to fire Peachey as the agency’s CEO. He declined to say how he would have voted.

“Because I wasn’t there to hear the complete discussions back and forth,” he said. “… I can’t, I don’t have enough information.”

The boards have an attendance quorum requiring that at least a third of their members be in attendance in order to conduct business. They routinely meet it by members phoning into a teleconference. Often they leave their phones muted and don’t participate.

CareerSource Pinellas board member and Goodwill Industries-Suncoast CEO Debbie Passerini said the phone-in option “helps busy executives save time but stay involved.” She has phoned into three meetings since September 2017, records show.

Other members who have participated by phone say it is hard to hear, making the teleconference a poor substitute for in-person attendance. The phones also make it difficult to track participation, they say, because if a person joins the call after the meeting starts, they don’t always get recorded as having attended.

Several board members questioned the accuracy of CareerSource attendance records.

In Pinellas, CareerSource minutes show that County Commissioner Janet Long missed all four full board meetings in 2014. She said the records must be wrong and asserted that she would not have missed that many meetings.

In the same span, Hillsborough County commissioner Sandy Murman missed three board meetings, according to minutes. But she disputed the records, saying she has phoned in or had staff members represent her without it being accurately recorded.

  • • •

Some members said they stopped attending meetings because they had no control over decisions anyway.

Peachey consolidated power in executive committees, made up of about eight members, who regularly approved his requests, they said. The full board elects officers to the committee and the chairs select additional members.

Peachey did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2014, CareerSource Pinellas made a major purchase in west St. Petersburg: seven acres that included the 24,000 square-foot Science Center of Pinellas County.

Peachey pitched the idea to the executive committee in a 35-minute meeting May 2014. The panel approved it with little discussion. The sale closed days later. Peachey never asked the full board for approval, according to records.

“I’ve never seen a board work like that,” said Debra Johnson, a Pinellas board member and executive director of the Pinellas Housing Authority, who called the meetings a “dog and pony show.”

“The executive committee allowed (the CEO) to do what he wanted. The decisions were not made by the board.”

Former St. Petersburg College President Bill Law said he attended a few meetings at CareerSource Pinellas but then stopped because the executive committee had already made the important decisions.

“All of us have day jobs,” Law said. “I don’t remember the board being engaged in any policy matters.”

Former Pinellas board member Stephen Sarnoff said Peachey and his confidantes did nothing at the meetings but “pat each other on the back.” He added: “Most of it was a rubber stamp.”

Even on the rare occasion when a board member questioned Peachey, the challenge received little traction.

In September 2016, Pinellas County commissioner Ken Welch, the board’s vice chair, accused Peachey of ending a contract with an accounting firm without proper approval from the board.

“This is the issue of the highest concern to me,” Welch told the full board.

Welch speculated that Peachey fired the auditing firm because a former CareerSource employee had joined the company and knew too much about the agencies’ accounting practices.

The other board members listened as they ate sandwiches. None took issue with Peachey firing the firm.

The discussion ended, and Peachey gave a report about how well the agency compared to other CareerSource offices across the state.

“Mr. Peachey just saw these opportunities to get it the way he wanted it to be for his personal benefit,” Murman said. “It’s not right. It wasn’t right.”

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com.

 

Political skirmish erupts over plan to revamp Hillsborough commission

 

By Christopher O’Donnell, Times Staff Writer

Published: April 18, 2018

Updated: April 18, 2018 at 10:12 PM

 

TAMPA — A political fight over the makeup of Hillsborough County government could be heading to voters to decide.

After a discussion divided along party lines, commissioners voted 5-2 Wednesday to move ahead with a plan to overhaul the structure of the Hillsborough County Commission including the addition of two seats. If approved by commissioners at an upcoming public hearing, the measure would go to a countywide referendum in the November general election.

The proposal is being pushed by Republican Commissioner Sandy Murman, who said the county has become too large for commissioners to serve constituents effectively. Hillsborough’s 1.4 million residents are represented by seven county commissioners — four elected in equally apportioned single-member districts and three who are elected countywide.

Under Murman’s plan, countywide seats would be eliminated and the commission would be made up of nine single-member districts. Citizens who now vote in four of the seven commission races would vote in only one.

The commission’s two Democrats voted against Murman’s plan. Commissioner Pat Kemp said the move is aimed simply at protecting Republican controlled at-large seats in what political pundits predict may be a tough election year for the GOP.

“This is in my mind raw partisan politics,” Kemp said. “This is commissioners trying to draw districts for themselves to keep themselves on the commission.”

Murman’s proposal would give her more options to stay in office.

She was re-elected in 2016 to a four-year term in her District 2 seat, but has filed to run for an open countywide seat this year.

But she could withdraw from the countywide seat and avoid running this year then run again in 2020 for a seat drawn to include her south Tampa home.

Asked three times at an earlier meeting, Murman would not commit to staying in the countywide race if her proposal advances. On Wednesday, she said her intent was to give local communities more say on the board.

“Our county is growing so fast, is getting so large, this is the best thing for fair representation throughout the whole county,” she said.

Les Miller, the commission’s other Democrat, has proposed smaller districts twice in the past, in part because he wants more representation for minorities — especially the Hispanic community. Murman was among a majority of commissioners who voted down the proposal in the past.

This time, Miller voted “no” because of concerns that new districts would be drawn up to guarantee Republicans a large majority.

Under the plan, the nine districts would be created by the county planning commission. But commissioners would have the final say and could alter district boundaries, raising the prospect of gerrymandering, Miller said. He also questioned why the county wouldn’t wait for the 2020 Census when new districts are traditionally redrawn.

“This board will put the politics back in it,” Miller said.

As evidence, Miller said he was contacted in November by Republican consultant Anthony Pedicini and asked if he would support for single member districts. Miller told him the district boundaries would need to drawn by a neutral organization.

Earlier this year, Miller said, Pedicini called him back and said he could broker a deal that would guarantee two Democratic districts, leaving Republicans with the other seven seats.

“They would have a super, super majority,” Miller said.

Contacted after the meeting by the Tampa Bay Times, Pedicini denied having that conversation and said he is not being paid to consult on the issue. But he said he did talk to Miller about single-member seats as an interested Hillsborough resident.

“I have not drawn any maps to make a promise like that,” Pedicini said.

Hillsborough’s current commission structure was set in a home rule charter proposal passed by voters in 1983 and adopted two years later. The mix of district and countywide seats was intended to give residents a say in both their local community and the county as a whole.

Other large Florida counties have only single member districts including Miami-Dade, which has 13, and Broward, which has nine.

Both also have a county mayor, however. In Miami-Dade, the position is elected. In Broward, commissioners appoint the position.

In Pinellas County, three members of the seven-member board are elected countywide and four from single-member districts.

Kemp said the proposal would pit each district against the others for the county’s limited resources. And commissioners would only be answerable to voters within their districts with no incentive to champion issues outside them, she said.

Some of the Republican commissioners who supported Murman’s plan also expressed concerns.

Commissioner Stacy White said he would make a final decision on how to vote after hearing from the public.

“That will give us a good gauge on how people feel about this ,” he said.

Commissioner Victor Crist said he hoped the public would come up with more ideas.

“This process was designed to give every community an opportunity to get a majority vote on this board,” he said.

Commissioners on Wednesday also tackled other issues that could result in significant changes to the way county officials are elected.

They asked county staff to draft an ordinance to limit service on the board to 12 consecutive years. That would prevent commissioners from bypassing the current eight-year term limits by running for a different seat.

They also voted to look again at making the election of constitutional offices like property appraiser and tax collector non-partisan. The idea was voted down in a recent meeting.

 

Commissioners vow to take control of CareerSource operations

Hillsborough County commissioner Sandra Murman, vice chair at CareerSource Tampa Bay, said Thursday that the county does not want CareerSource Tampa Bay to merge with CareerSource Pinellas. {[ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]

 

 

Mark Puente

Zachary T. SampsonTimes staff writer

 

 

Published: April 12, 2018

Updated: April 12, 2018 at 07:30 PM

 

CLEARWATER — For years, Tampa Bay’s two job placement centers operated with little scrutiny from elected officials or the county governments they represent.

That’s about to change, said the county commissioners who serve on the boards of CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay in Hillsborough County.

And that likely will start with the county commissions on each side of the bay requiring board members for both agencies to reapply for the positions.

“We’re in charge now,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman. “We’re the boss. We’re going to fix this.”

The warning came during a meeting of select CareerSource board members from both agencies.

The commissioners said they were interviewed last week by officials from the U.S. Department of Labor, which is investigating whether the employment centers inflated the number of people they helped find jobs in reports to the state. Labor officials expressed alarm at the lack of financial oversight at both agencies under former president and CEO Edward Peachey.

Peachey was fired from both agencies in separate votes last month.

“We have been chastised by the Department of Labor,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard. “We need to straighten it out.”

Thursday’s meeting was scheduled so the panel could start discussing whether to merge the two agencies or split them apart under new leadership. They previously operated as separate agencies until Peachey was asked to oversee both in 2010 following a spending scandal in the Hillsborough CareerSource offices.

Peachey reported to separate boards made up of people from education, business, government and labor organizations.

In a memo last week to Pinellas commissioners, Gerard wrote that federal officials said “almost no municipality or county has handed over the day-to-day fiscal functions” to its workforce board. Many counties provide the “services themselves” or use a third party, the memo said.

The limited supervision allowed Peachey to centralize his power among “a relatively small number of” board members, Gerard wrote. She said she wants the county to consider making board members reapply for the volunteer positions.

The Pinellas commission is set to hold a workshop Tuesday to discuss the jobs center.

Murman said Hillsborough County officials are telling board members this week that they must reapply and that each will be required to live in the county. Leaders there also have assigned a high-ranking county economic development employee to work at the jobs center to help get information to commissioners, who want the agencies separated by June 30.

 

Even with scrutiny in the past two months, Murman said, the agencies have been slow to turn over financial records for inspection. The county is demanding to know how the agency spent $23 million last year that was supposed to serve Hillsborough residents.

Murman blamed Peachey for creating a structure that gave him total control of the organizations.

“Ed Peachey sold us a bill of goods,” Murman said. “We gave our rights as boards of county commissioners in Pinellas and Hillsborough over to one individual.”

CareerSource Pinellas chairman Jack Geller agreed, saying, “In the past, let’s be honest, Ed was running everything. Period. End of discussion.”

Peachey did not respond to a request for comment.

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com.

 

Joe Henderson: Changing Hillsborough Commission makeup worth a look

JOE HENDERSON

2 hours ago

 

You could say Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman was thinking outside the box when she proposed a major change Wednesday to how that governing body is chosen.

 

On the other hand, you could say it was all about the box — the ballot box, that is.

You probably would be correct on both points. It also doesn’t mean she was wrong to argue that the Commission should eliminate countywide seats in favor of single-member districts.

It also is a fact, though, that commissioners have used countywide seats as a way to stay in power.

Doesn’t that trump everything?

Confused?

Hang with me for just a bit.

Hillsborough’s charter, approved by voters 35 years ago, provides for seven county commissioners. Four of them represent a single district; three are chosen countywide.

 

The rationale behind that is that voters will always have a say in the majority makeup of the board.

In 1983, when the referendum passed creating the current setup, Hillsborough’s population was a little over 700,000. Today, it is 1.4 million and expanding rapidly.

 

In the Tampa Bay Times story about Murman’s proposal, she made the point that the county has more people than 10 states.

 

I looked it up. She is correct.

There are more people here than in Alaska, Delaware, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. For good measure, we’re about equal with Hawaii.

Another fun fact: Hillsborough’s population has jumped by about 200,000 since 2010. To put that in perspective, basically, the population of Richmond, Va. moved into Hillsborough County.

By the year 2030, only 12 years from now, that number is predicted to increase by another 300,000 — roughly the population of Cincinnati. If that happens, I hope they’re thoughtful enough to bring more Skyline Chili outlets here, but I digress.

Murman argues that changing the commission makeup to single-member districts — and maybe expanding the board by two members — makes sense because Hillsborough is too large for anyone to effectively represent everyone in the county.

That point is worthy of discussion.

But critics were quick to pounce on Murman, and they had a point too. After all, she plans to run for a countywide seat this fall even though voters in District 1 elected her in 2016 to a four-year term.

With a big, blue Democratic wave forecast for November, Murman, a Republican, might face a tough battle in a hotly contested countywide race.

If her idea passes, though, she could suddenly have a change of heart and stay in District 1 until 2020. There’s a good chance new boundary lines would leave her in good shape to win another election.

Such intrigue.

Let’s be honest, though. Commissioners have been using these countywide seats to bob and weave around term limits. We’re seeing that play out again this fall.

Commissioner Victor Crist can’t run again in his single-member district because he has served the maximum of two consecutive terms. Ah, but he can run countywide and start the clock over.

That’s what he is doing.

Ken  Hagan, who has served two countywide terms, is running for Crist’s District 2 seat.

Crist is running for Hagan’s countywide chair.

See how this works?

Yes, voters have the final say whether that tactic is successful, but generally, incumbents and familiar names have a great advantage in these situations.

I doubt Murman’s gambit will be approved, if the initial reaction from the board means anything. It was tepid, to say the least.

Since five of the seven members would have to approve putting the idea on the ballot, and then voters would have to decide, getting enough support is a long-shot.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.

Just look at the mishmash way the Commission has handled the county’s already-explosive growth. Then imagine what we’ll look like when Cincinnati moves to town little more than a decade from now.

Traffic will be worse than we can imagine. Sprawl, already a major problem, could reach nightmare proportions.

Having a more-nimble Commission that represents smaller parts of the county isn’t the worst way to think about dealing with this.

 
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