Records obtained by Creative Loafing Tampa Bay show that HART has lost 50 administrative level employees—including several high ranking employees—from January of 2021 until March 21 of this year. Of those employees who left during that time, 37 resigned.
This week, Director of Communications and Marketing Nikki Frenney resigned from HART. Frenney leaves after just four months at the organization, she was hired in December of last year. She is the second communications director and third high-ranking communications professional to work under CEO Adelee Le Grand since she started the job in January of 2021.
CL received a tip that Frenney had resigned from her $147,000 a year job at HART this week. Via phone today she confirmed this it's true and that she is leaving for another position, but did not elaborate further. Frenney has more than 20 years of media relations and public affairs experience, primarily in the public transit industry.
Other employees who have left HART over the past year and did not want to be named, told CL on background that there were a number of issues that led them to part ways with the organization. Some alleged name calling and being verbally berated by Le Grand.
A former employee alleged a lack of transparency with the press under Le Grand, including the purposeful tying up of public records requests made by journalists.
Creative Loafing Tampa Bay had difficulty getting a list of how many administrative level employees have left HART through a public records request, but after contacting all of the county commissioners, HART released the information.
What the documentation shows is that several important employees have left the organization in recent months.
Last week, the Director of Legal Services suddenly resigned from his $150,000 a year position. The Senior Litigation Staff Attorney also resigned last November.
The Director of Operations support resigned this month, as did a contracts specialist and accountant.
HART's senior project planner resigned in September of last year, followed by the senior planner in November. The director of government relations also left in November.
On top of this, three high-level financial positions resigned last year, and another left due to personal reasons.
Across the bay at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, 28 administrative level employees have left—56 percent of HART's amount of turnover.
As of now, HART's website shows that 25 positions, mostly at the administrative level, are open for applications. A follow-up records request to see how many of the positions have been re-filled and how many administrative level employees have resigned as of today, March 25, has not yet been responded to.
During a phone call today, Le Grand, who has more than two decades experience in the transit industry, said that the organization is taking a direction that everyone might not agree with, but that it's all part of a process to transform HART.
"We definitely want to turn HART into the best public mobility provider that we can be in Hillsborough County, and that also requires us to operate like a business," Le Grand said. "I know we're not for profit, but we still need to operate as a business, and we're transitioning to do that. And there's a lot of excitement here about it."
Le Grand said that she respects the decisions that some employees have made to leave, and it "was expected that everyone is not going to be a willing participant."
"I feel good with the progress that we're making," Le Grand said. "And it's gonna take us some time because make sure we have the right fit and the right folks, and even the people who have left here you know, they're well qualified, they're talented. They just weren't the right fit for right now. So we have to move forward and continue to build and grow."
She denied ever name calling anyone at the organization, saying, "I definitely wouldn't agree to that." She added that she's not very involved with the public records request process, and that HART hasn't had complaints from other media outlets about not getting their requests in a timely manner.
She said that during her time at HART she's established a focus on excellence and making improvements.
"We've fixed our route schedule so that they're more dependable and accurate," Le Grand said. "But that takes change and people working a little differently. So I would say overall is in keeping with what we see nationally, statewide and within the industry."
Le Grand multiple times referenced the "Great Resignation," which entails people in all industries leaving their jobs for various reasons brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis. Several sources, including a Pew Research study say that the main reasons for people leaving their jobs during the Great Resignation include low pay, a lack of opportunities for advancement, and feeling disrespected at work.
The former HART employees said that the alleged toxic work environment didn't come out of a vacuum. The fallout from the past two CEO scandals helped create a volatile situation.
HART has seen its share of controversies over recent years. Last year, an investigation found that the company's former CEO Carolyn House Stewart had participated in “abuse, hostile, humiliating and bullying behaviors." HART paid nearly $100,000 in vacation pay, severance, settlement and attorney's fees for Stewart to resign from the agency.
Ben Limmer, HART's CEO before Stewart, resigned from the agency in 2020, after the HART board had initially voted to fire him. An investigation alleged he violated eight agency policies, including giving a contractor unfair advantage on a massive contract and misusing a company purchasing card. As part of a legal agreement with HART and Limmer's attorney, he resigned and HART dropped allegations of the unfair contract.
Le Grand was selected by the organizations board of directors on Nov. 4 of 2020 following a national search of more than 160 applicants. The financially strapped organization paid her $250,000, after she had requested $288,000, which was beyond the ceiling of pay for her position. She then asked for a 15% raise should the Florida Supreme Court pass the countywide transportation surtax, a request that the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board said made "no sense."
This year, Le Grand got her raise from Hillsborough County Commission and now makes $288,000. At the same time, union workers struggle to get HART to bargain with them over their contract.
CL contacted Pat Kemp, Chair of the HART Board of Directors, who said Le Grand is highly qualified, and that funding problems are the main source of the issues at HART.
"I attended the American Public Transit Association meeting in Washington, DC last week," Kemp wrote in an email. "Among 500 of her transit colleagues across the nation, Adelee Le Grand was singled out by the APTA Chair for her significant contributions to the organization."
Kemp continued that Hillsborough County has the most underfunded transit agency in the nation for a metro area this size, "not by just a little, but by a lot." She said that in funding, HART has continually ranked dead last out of 20 against competitive metro areas. She pointed to a move earlier this week that could change that situation.On Wednesday in a 6-1 vote, the commissioners decided to revive a 30-year, 1% transportation sales tax, which was previously shot down by the Florida Supreme Court. They asked county staff to report back on April 6 with the language for a proposed ballot referendum. If the language passes, the vote would take place in November.
HART board member and county Commissioner Mariella Smith agreed with Kemp that more funding is the key to solving important problems with the local transportation system.
She said that the county has several priorities, including road repair, bicycle and pedestrian safety, and of course, helping fund HART so it can operate more efficiently.
"As we keep saying, and everybody knows our transit system is woefully underfunded," Smith said. "But this transit referendum will address all those things."
Le Grand also hopes the funding measure passes, saying the funding is crucial for HART's future.
"It will do a lot of things for morale, for people to be excited and to understand that this agency has funding to be sustainable," she said.
UPDATE: Updated at 9: 40 a.m. on 03/28/22 to clarify that Ben Limmer technically resigned, via a legal settlement between Limmer and HART.