Toni Jennings isn't someone you'd expect to criticize Workforce Central Florida.
After all, she helped found the jobs agency.
Heck, there's even an annual Workforce award named after her.
Yet, on the heels of scandals over everything from superhero capes to federal investigations, Jennings minced no words last week when I asked her about the agency's current state of affairs:
"Their mission has been compromised."
Those who know Jennings — a respected former Senate president and lieutenant governor — know that she isn't one to rush to judgment or overreact to a single episode.
Workforce Central Florida, however, has had far more than just one problem.
It started with the capes — a plan to spend more than $10,000 in public money on miniature superhero capes supposed to make the jobless feel empowered. Instead, they made the agency look stupid. Jobless people need jobs, not gimmicks.
Then, the Sentinel revealed that some board members' companies had been striking financial deals with the very taxpayer-funded agency they were supposed to be watchdogging.
State auditors questioned car purchases. A legal dispute with SunTrust cost an additional $739,000.
Now, as the Sentinel's Jim Stratton reported, the feds are looking at the state's entire network of 24 local boards, and Gov. Rick Scott is asking questions.
Add it all up, and you have quite a taxpayer-funded mess.
Also losing out: job seekers. Because, as Jennings points out: "If you're spending dollars on these things, you're not spending money on people who need jobs."
The complicated hubbub seems far removed from the late '90s, when Jennings helped create the state's work-force network with a seemingly simple goal: to help people find work.
It was all part of welfare reform: trying to get people off the public dole and on to private payrolls.
In short, Workforce Central Florida was meant to help people find jobs. And it does.
But the agency's mission has also wandered a bit since its inception.
For instance, Workforce also runs a gang-prevention program for teens. A worthy endeavor? Absolutely. But part of the core mission of a jobs agency? I'm not so sure.
The agency also now focuses more of its time on companies than individuals. A big part of the agency's focus is subsidizing job-training programs that companies might otherwise pay for themselves as a basic cost of doing business.
Clearly problematic are the nonprofit agency's conflicts of interests among board members. Quite simply: No board member who is supposed to be guarding money should also be taking it.
Jennings actually takes the argument a step further, questioning whether any of the employers who avail themselves of the agency's job-training services should serve on the board, either.
Also, the board itself is big and unwieldy — about 40 members who meet only four times a year. Some of that structure is state-mandated. But it's still a problem. A big board that meets infrequently doesn't add up to accountability.
Interestingly, the top dogs at Workforce Central Florida don't necessarily disagree.
Late last week, I sat down with CEO Gary Earl and board Chairman Larry Haber.
Previously defensive attitudes seem to have been replaced with more-open minds.
I'm not sure whether the epiphany was the result of a string of bad press or the recent threat of an investigation into possible criminal conflicts of interest involving workforce contracts.
But Haber often responded to concerns with statements like: "Those are fair questions," "That's a debate worth having," and "We welcome the scrutiny."
Earl said they would look for ways to improve.
Both men still argue their agency does a good job. They contend administrative costs are low and that results are high, with 50 percent of those who come to them ultimately finding employment.
And they say they've tried to be responsive, killing their cape campaign and changing the policies to prohibit board members from doing business with the agency.
That's a start. But what really needs to happen is for everyone involved — from the state to the local boards — to beef up ethical guidelines, tighten the financial reins and sharpen everyone's focus.
After all, when Jennings and Gov. Jeb Bush helped create this system more than a decade ago, they knew precisely how they wanted to spend the public's money.
Not on capes. Not on fancy buildings or lawsuits. And most certainly not on deals with board members' companies.
But on getting people jobs.
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