Steven Meier to head CareerSource Pinellas after agency loses another CEO amid controversy

Steven Meier ART
Jennifer Brackney resigned Friday following numerous whistleblower complaints and questions over hiring practices.

CareerSource Pinellas, the county’s publicly funded job placement and development agency, lost another CEO amid controversy Friday.

The agency’s board of directors voted unanimously to accept the resignation of Jennifer Brackney. As part of her separation agreement, Brackney will receive more than $50,000. She’ll receive $21,747 in severance and nearly $32,000 in unused vacation time. The board’s attorney, Stephanie Marchman, said Brackney’s attorney approached her about the severance agreement.

The board also voted to install Chief Financial Officer Steven Meier as interim CEO.

“My role has been as a change agent working to address the ethical and financial challenges that were really created under the former CEO and our still-ongoing investigation with the U.S. Department of Labor through their compliance review,” Brackney said. “I truly took to heart the board’s direction to right the ship and implement best practices. I accept why we are here today. These changes were part of a difficult journey of transformation.”

Brackney joined CareerSource Pinellas in 2015. She was a top aide to Edward Peachey, the former CEO who led both the Pinellas and Tampa Bay branches for CareerSource. Peachey is still under federal investigation for filing fraudulent reports, inflating salaries and misusing millions in taxpayer funds while running the organization. An investigation from the Tampa Bay Times uncovered those allegations.

Brackney took over as interim executive director in 2018 and was elevated to CEO later that year. The then-joint agency was also officially split into separate Pinellas and Tampa Bay organizations.

Brackney’s resignation doesn’t come as a shock. The CEO’s efficacy was called into question late last year by the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) following a number of whistleblower complaints accusing Brackney of violating state law and creating a toxic work culture.

“It is my belief that this agreement is the best way forward and takes into account our fiduciary responsibility to this organization,” Board Chair Barclay Harless said. “We’ve been struggling with several investigations handled by this board.”

The first investigation was launched after an employee accused Brackney of fostering a toxic work environment, improper reporting of agency success and retaliation against employees. An independent investigation found no laws violated, but did say of the toxic workplace allegation, “The investigation process does reveal a perception that such an environment exists.”

A second complaint was filed in December. That alleged Brackney removed legally mandated salary information from the CareerSource Pinellas website. State law requires the agency to post the total compensation for executive leadership. DEO sent out a form in June, which was completed and posted to the site in July.

“For a certain amount of time, about three months, that form was on the website,” investigating attorney Patrick Hagen said. “It was subsequently removed over concerns the definition of executive leadership was a little too broad and included too many employees.”

State statute defines executive leadership as the CEO and any direct reports. That differs from the federally mandated 990 tax form, which has fewer stipulations. A DEO review in December found the information removed was supposed to be there. But it didn’t reappear on the website until Hagen’s investigation was completed in January.

Hagen found Brackney had violated the law.

In January, DEO’s Adrienne Johnson wrote to Brackney asking how the agency could be run with high employee turnover rates and low employee morale. About 30 employees have resigned from the agency since July 2020. Seven have resigned or announced intent to leave since December.

Harless found a number of CareerSource Pinellas employees left in recent years to work at partner CareerSource agencies. He said their exit interviews indicated they didn’t leave because they were offered better opportunities.

High turnover created an additional challenge for the board. With Brackney’s resignation effective Friday, the board needed to choose an interim replacement. Board members indicated they would reach out to local CareerSource partners to find another interim, but selected Meier as a sort of interim-interim until another might be selected. Meier will receive a 7.5% temporary pay increase over his $137,812.74 salary.

The board could’ve chosen HR head Jacqueline Duchene-Heyward, but she’s resigning too. She leaves the agency next Friday. Another option was Chief Operating Officer Kristopher Lucas. But for many on the board, that was a non-starter.

Lucas’ COO position has already come under scrutiny. Lucas started with the organization in January 2021 with no prior workforce development experience. As of June, he was director of business and talent development with year-to-date earnings around $46,000. His starting salary was $102,500.  In July, he was named program director and his salary was increased to $115,000. By January, less than a year after he started his career in workforce development, Lucas was COO. His salary was increased to $135,000.

Lucas was part of the October whistleblower report. He was accused of retaliating against an employee. But the report found “no improper animus” and said interviewees were complimentary of Lucas, save for a “lack of industry knowledge.” He is now the agency’s second in command.

During a meeting of the board’s Compensation Committee last week, it was revealed that HR did not participate in the hiring process. Five resumes were received, but Brackney only conducted a single interview.

Harless said Lucas is a great guy but expressed concern over the situation with senior management.

“I’m highly concerned here,” Harless said during the meeting. “We’ve got one interview for one individual that is now the number two person at this organization who has one year of experience in workforce development and he is going to be hiring two directors who are in very technical roles.”

The board’s executive committee will next meet to consider outsourcing an interim CEO and establishing a search committee for Brackney’s permanent replacement.

Daniel Figueroa IV

Bronx, NY —> St. Pete, Fla. Just your friendly, neighborhood journo junkie with a penchant for motorcycles and Star Wars. Daniel has spent the last decade covering Tampa Bay and Florida for the Ledger of Lakeland, Tampa Bay Times, and WMNF. You can reach Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected].

One comment

  • Michelle

    February 11, 2022 at 2:34 pm

    Best possible outcome for CSPIN! The integrity and commitment of a handful board members made todays outcome possible. The few leaders on the board chose to listen to the complaints and take action to mandate the agency functions as intended. The depth of destruction created within the last 18 months has been overwhelming. The board members who paid attention to the complaints and listened to CSPIN staff have taken the necessary action that now allows the remaining workforce professionals at CSPIN, and those who will join the team, rebuild and bring back the sorely needed workforce service/programs to the community and to those who need them most! Today was a great day for CSPIN and the individuals should be acknowledged for their integrity and commitment to their roles on the board and the responsibility that is attached; We all know they would be acknowledged if they hadn’t.

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