Rod Petrey - Floridian of the Year
Under Rod Petrey, the Collins Center for Public Policy has never been a traditional think tank. In 2010, Petrey took the center to new heights while leaving its mark on two of the year's thorniest issues.
[Photo: Brian Smith]
After his freshman year at the University of Florida, Petrey went on to Yale, majoring in history, and served in the First Cavalry in Korea, the 101st Airborne and in 1966 as a Green Beret captain in Vietnam before returning to Florida and linking up with Collins, who was running (unsuccessfully) for U.S. Senate.
"The man saved my life," Petrey says. "It was a rough year (in Vietnam). He became a surrogate father to me. I'm in love with LeRoy Collins." At the ceremony when Petrey was admitted to the Bar after graduating from Harvard Law School, Collins was the lawyer who stood up for him.
Initially, Petrey chose business rather than law. He worked for the McKinsey consulting firm until 1977, when he and his wife, Lucy, and their two children moved to Miami, where he later became a partner at Holland and Knight. In 1988, the Legislature created the Collins Center with a $2-million endowment as a legacy for the former governor. Three years later, Collins, ill with the cancer that would kill him later that year, called and asked Petrey to take over the center.
During Petrey's tenure, the center built an expertise in mediation that Petrey leveraged when the real estate bubble burst in 2007 and foreclosure cases began clogging Florida's courts. Making mediation a part of the foreclosure process, he believed, could serve the interests of borrowers, lenders and the courts.
The center offered to administer mediation efforts in foreclosure cases, and the state's 19th Circuit, covering much of the Treasure Coast, including foreclosure-hotbed St. Lucie County, bit first. The circuit launched a program — mandatory for lenders and servicers on homesteaded property, optional for homeowners — in the spring of 2009.
Experience showed that cases that go to mediation fall out of the court system, a much-desired outcome for judges in "the tsunami of foreclosure cases that were being filed," says Circuit Judge Burton Conner.
Based on the center's experience in the Treasure Coast and then in the Miami-Dade and Pensacola circuits, the state Supreme Court in December 2009 ordered mediation statewide. The center picked up three more circuits while other outfits handle mediation in the state's 14 other judicial circuits.
Ask Petrey why the center dived into foreclosure mediation and he answers in terms of cutting court caseloads, the center's history in mediation and the importance of mediation as part of "deliberative democracy." Interestingly, he doesn't say "to keep people in their homes." Petrey says the center's personnel may be inclined that way but "we try really hard to be a neutral party."
Two years into the program, Conner says the program is "a work in progress." A high percentage of homeowners can't be reached or don't respond to efforts to get them to try mediation. But the 8% of homeowners who reach some agreement or settlement prior to mediation — from turning over the keys to reducing loan terms — is a significant number given the volume of cases, Conner says. What ultimately happens to those 8% is something the center is now studying. "All in all, I have to say the program is considered a success," Conner says.
It's been a success for the center. It takes in $750 per case, pays out a total of $425 to a mediator and to a credit counselor for the borrower and retains the rest to cover the expense of 60 call-center workers, who strive to get homeowners to try mediation, and administrators. Collins makes a small amount of money on each case.
Petrey has used the money to fund more work and hire marketing, development and communications staff. The additional resources proved timely when then-Florida Sen. President Jeff Atwater (now the state's CFO), called for a report on the potential impact of lifting the offshore oil-drilling ban. The report, which emerged the month before the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf, lowered the temperature in the debate and drew praise from all sides for its fairness.