May 7, 2011; Source: Orlando Sentinel | Five million dollars in contract deals with for-profit and nonprofit companies associated with one’s board members? That’s a recipe for attracting lots of negative attention and insinuations of self-dealing and conflicts of interest, but Workforce Central Florida doesn’t seem to be particularly perturbed.

The group’s board chairperson defended the practices with the usual litany of explanations: the auditors never complained; no losing bidders ever formally challenged the process; board members have to recuse themselves from discussions about contracts with their organizations; deals with board members’ groups require a 2/3 board vote; etc.

A little tone-deaf perhaps? Yes, especially in Florida where public and nonprofit agencies such as Florida’s Blood Centers have come under fire for cutting business deals with board members. Legal or illegal, “it’s a miserable practice . . . and it’s unethical,” in the view of nonprofit consultant Alan Weiss, regardless of the “mountain of rules” that the board chair cites as keeping things legit. But the board chair concluded, “I don’t think we’ve done anything wrong.” The board will reexamine its contracting process at its June meeting, the chair said.

Workforce was thrust onto the public scene last month because of the organization’s marketing plan for handing out 6,000 superhero capes to the unemployed. The capes were part of Workforce’s "Cape-A-Bility Challenge" public relations campaign aimed at defeating a cartoon character called "Dr. Evil Unemployment". The campaign featured pictures of the board chair himself wearing the cape targeting Dr. Evil Was it a board member’s PR firm that recommended that brilliant strategy?

It’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t. There are 44, count ‘em, 44 luminaries occupying seats on the Workforce Central Florida board of directors. What do 44 board members do? The board chair said that “it’s natural for business owners [on the Workplace board] to sometimes bid on agency work,” and to prevent that practice would make it “difficult ‘to recruit the people we really want.’” He went on to say that “Orlando is ‘not that big’” and self-dealing restrictions would, as the Orlando Sentinel put it, make the “willingness to serve on civic boards . . . evaporate.”

In the case of Workforce Central Florida, it is easy to imagine why the public might question the civic rather than business motivations of the 44 board members. Who the heck needs 44 board members? Couldn’t many of them simply provide services to the unemployed rather than having to serve on the board to guarantee that they do?—Rick Cohen