Although all eyes regarding local transit are focused this week on the Greenlight Pinellas measure on Tuesday's ballot in Pinellas County, there's been quite a lot of action going on this year with Hillsborough's transit agency, HART, including the possibility of the reconfiguration of its composition.
Most of that action has happened under the leadership of Katharine Eagan, who was named interim CEO after Phillip Hale announced his departure earlier this year. With a lot on their plate, the sentiment of the board at the time was that they shouldn't put out a national search for a replacement for Hale until the agency had a clearer direction about their growth going forward.
And while that uncertainty remains to a certain extent, Eagan has been a popular replacement. So much so that HART board members voted today to make her position permanent, and for Attorney David Smith to begin working on a contract for her to be reviewed by the agency next month.
The call to give Eagan the permanent gig came via board member Les Miller, who declared, "It's time to make the CEO permanent for this agency," after noting a number of successes under her watch since replacing Hale.
"What I’ve seen is a solid, strong, competent leader who's recognized around the country," board member and fellow County Commissioner Mark Sharpe added immediately in seconding Miller's motion. "My concern is if we don't act, we're going to lose her."
Similar hosannas followed, with the exception of just two board members, Kevin Beckner and Karen Jaroch.
"I think that we owe it to the taxpayers and our community that — especially if a referendum passes — that we need to do a nationwide search, " said Beckner, who emphasized that he thought Eagan was doing a "fantastic job."
"There's a lot of uncertainty here," agreed Jaroch. "We don't know if there is a referendum, will it include things like fixed guideways. It may require a whole new set of skills ... I fully feel confident that Miss Eagan could take that on, but I would like her to get that role after she's risen to the top in a search where we have considered and done our due diligence on who is the best one to lead this agency given this is what it's going to look like."
But every other board member disagreed.
Josh Burgin, a major critic of the 2010 light-rail proposal in Hillsborough County, said there was a presumption that Greenlight and Polk County's transit tax would pass on Tuesday, though that's definitely not known at this time. He also said it's not even a given that Hillsborough will vote on a transit referendum in 2016.
"What's undisputed is an agency with 600 employees. And if we as a board leave an executive in the category of 'interim' for another six months, I think we do the agency as a whole a profound disservice."
"What a travesty it would be if we hesitate and lose her," added board member John Melendez.
HART Chair Mike Suarez later said that if there is a transit referendum in 2016 and it's successful, then the discussion could be re-opened about conducting a national search for a new CEO. But he said until then, there was a better chance at hiring Eagan at a salary commensurate with HART's finances then to go outside the agency.
"I appreciate the confidence the HART Board of Directors has placed in my ability to lead HART," Eagan said in a statement after the meeting. "This is a great opportunity to continue on the positive path to build a transportation network that meets the community's needs and I plan to ensure that HART continues delivering on the promises we have made to improve the lives of people in Hillsborough County."
Although Eagan isn't going anywhere soon, Mark Sharpe is. Term-limited out of office within the next few weeks, the commissioner, who was the leading advocate of the Hillsborough County transit tax back in 2010 that went down to defeat, said goodbye to his HART colleagues today.
Also out is longtime HART board member Dr. Steven Polzin from USF's CUTR, and one of the longer-serving board members. He penned a farewell note that was read aloud by Suarez to the group, where he praised the agency for its positive growth in challenging times, writing that HART's ridership has grown 80 percent since 2000, while the national average is around 10 percent.
The new board faces include architect Mickey Jacob (whom CL profiled last month) and Kathleen Shanahan, Mayor Bob Buckhorn's choice to replace the outgoing Fran Davin. Shanahan is Chairman and CEO of URETEK Holdings, Inc, a Florida-based corporation focused on soil stabilization and densification through the use of a patented polymer-based application process. She's also had a long career in GOP politics, including serving as chiefs of staff to both former Governor Jeb Bush and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney.