Former Sen. Bill Bankhead Taking Charge at Juvenile Justice New Job, New Challenges Governor Takes Notice as New Secretary Digs In

Article excerpt

TALLAHASSEE -- At 5 a.m. every Monday, Bill Bankhead climbs into his Toyota Camry at his Ponte Vedra Beach home, pops a book-on-tape into his tape deck and sets out for the state capital.

Every Friday, sometime after 7 p.m., he heads back.

Since Gov. Jeb Bush named him secretary of the Juvenile Justice Department in January, Bankhead has been getting to know Interstate 10 even better than he did in his 20 years as a state legislator.

"I've listened to a lot of books," he allows.

Bankhead, 58, was one of the Legislature's experts on juvenile and social service issues during his long tenure.

When he took his new job, his family remained behind to allow his 17-year-old daughter Brooke, to finish her senior year at Allen D. Nease High School in northern St. Johns County. When she graduates, Bankhead said, they will re-evaluate whether to stay in Ponte Vedra Beach.

His efforts to bring more accountability to the department have attracted the attention of Bush, who singled him out recently in talking about how state agencies are trying to do a better job of evaluating programs and eliminating those that do not work.

Bankhead, who worked in the real estate division of CSX for 30 years before he was appointed to his present job, acknowledges he had never managed anything nearly as big as the 6,000-employee department he now heads.

But he said his experience with the railroad gave him a knowledge of business principles that he has applied to the management of his department.

"I wasn't totally ill-prepared," Bankhead said.

While he is reorganizing the department's management structure and implementing changes in operations, Bankhead contended that changing attitudes is just as important.

To this end, he daily sends to all department managers a list of "secrets to success" from Investor's Business Daily.

While some of these may seem unsurprising, for example "Be persistent and work hard," Bankhead said they serve a purpose.

"For some," he said, "those are innovative concepts."

MORE MONITORING

One of the first of Bankhead's priorities after taking office was to get a better handle on how the department's service providers were performing.

Bankhead said in the past, firms that got contracts or grants from the department were allowed to spend the money with little attention to whether they actually accomplished their objectives.

He has assigned 15 new staff members, one for each of the department's districts, to monitor performance.

"We want to make a more critical analysis of the programs we pay for," he said.

When problems developed with a private firm operating a detention facility in Pahokee, Bankhead canceled its contract rather than waiting for it to expire and hired a new operator.

The new contract, Bankhead said, has a system of incentives and penalties to encourage the provider to meet the requirements for education, food service, bookkeeping and level of incidents of abuse.

For every child that earns a high school diploma or its equivalent, the provider will get a $500 bonus.

Every escape will cost the company $2,500 and each failure to report an incident involving injury to a child will cost $1,000.

Bankhead is taking a new approach to budgeting, too, cutting back on the programs that legislators procured for their districts in the past and have become a continuing part of the budget.

He identified $9.1 million worth of those projects in the department's budget and has removed them all.

But realizing that many of them may be justified, he has set aside $6 million in his upcoming budget for competitive grants for those or similar projects.

Another $3 million in programs that the department itself initiated, but which lack a statewide focus, will also be eliminated.

TOO EARLY TO TELL

Children's advocates like Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children, say it is too early to say what impact Bankhead will have on juvenile justice in the state. …