Sunday, December 04, 2005


The stuff really hit the fan this week at the Bartow headquarters of the Polk County Opportunity Council. That is the agency which runs Polk County's Head Start programme and also provides a variety of assistance to low income citizens in the area. PCOC has been in the spotlight for several months due to several instances of poor judgement by it's management and board, as well as it's financial records being either nonexistant or almost impossible to decipher.

On Monday, investigators from the federal Inspector General's office arrived in Bartow to begin reviewing records for the past two years. The IG's office became involved as PCOC accepts federal funds to finance many of it's programmes. They will attempt to do what the agency's own auditors could not do...try to track the flow of money during that period.

Meanwhile, only seven of the 13 board members --- barely a quorum --- gave Executive Director Carolyn Speed a choice to either submit her resignation by the end of the day or be terminated. Although her letter was not submitted until the next morning, the Lakeland Ledger reported that it was accepted, and her seperation is noted as a voluntary resignation.

Ms. Speed was cited for signing off on several no-bid contracts which violated federal and agency regulations, most notably one with Canon for a big ticket copier for which she received an all expense paid trip to Las Vegas (including tickets to Cirque de Soleil) under the guise of a "training session".

Also Monday, Congressman Adam Putnam (R - Bartow) told the local Tiger Bay Club that other agencies should begin preparing to take over the services that PCOC currently provides. Putnam said that even with Speed's departure, it still doesn't change the basic problems with the agency. From Tuesday's Ledger:

"This does not solve anything. It is an important step, but the Iowa audit noted that the problems lie with the PCOC board as much as with the director...There are fundamental problems when the board cannot understand the financial statements prepared by its own staff,"

The Iowa audit Putnam referred to was a report on PCOC's management (.pdf file / Adobe Reader required) submitted by Mid Iowa Community Action in October and November.

And on top of all of this, ten of the 13 members of PCOC's board of directors who participated in a closed door session on September 15 now face civil charges of violating Florida's Government In The Sunshine Law. During their meeting that day while discussing Ms. Speed's future with the agency, the board retreated to a conference room for over an hour. After the private session, the board returned to it's public meeting and voted to give the executive director a letter of admonishment for the Las Vegas trip.

In the 10 complaint affidavits, Dugas wrote that Florida's Sunshine Law applies to a public board's discussions and formal actions and that the law applies to any gathering of two or more members of the board.

PCOC officials said they were exempt from the law because they were discussing business with two lawyers.

"The law also applies to any discussions between the board and their attorneys unless a legislative exemption applies," Dugas wrote.

Legislative exemptions include discussions of a lawsuit settlement.

By law, even with an exemption, a closed-door meeting of a public board must be recorded. But no tape of the secret Sept. 15 meeting exists

The State Attorney's office decided on only civil charges as evidence of criminal intent is required to press for criminal penalities. Therefore, the maximum penalty they will face is a $500 fine.

The drama continues...


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