HART board votes to not kill off Alternative Analysis study just yet

Even with the transit tax rejected by voters last November, among the proposals that the HART Alternative Analysis was still look at a possible "starter" light rail line that would go to Tampa International Airport. But with Governor Rick Scott rejecting federal funds for high speed rail, Sharpe said that route is just a fantasy at this point , and it made sense for the agency to concentrate directly on concentrating on its core mission: providing the best bus service it could for its riders and taxpayers.


Acknowledging that nobody was more public in supporting the light rail measure last year than himself (which spawned a Republican primary opponent in his ultimately successful bid for re-election last fall), Sharpe said that even in his discussions with HART staff, the idea of comparing light rail vs. a bus rapid transit route was now a waste of time and money.


HART planner Mary Shevalier told the board that the A.A., which began in July of 2009, has so far cost $1.5 million. That's money obtained from the federal government. They would not have to pay that money back if the study were to end prematurely. She also said there was approximately $400,000 left of those funds.


The third member from the Board of County Commissioners who serves on HART's board, Kevin Beckner, then spoke out and said that he'd prefer that the A.A. be wrapped up, but he said to kill it immediately would make much of its work incomplete and not viable to pick up in a few years when the support for light rail might perk back up.


Many board members seemed to be split between Sharpe and Beckner's motions, but Beckner's call to keep the study alive and have HART staff members provide options back to the board prevailed on a 6-5 vote.


That move angered Sharon Calvert, a Tampa tea party activist, called that decision "unacceptable." She later specifically took her anger out on Sharpe after the meeting.


Also at the meeting, the attorney for the board, Mary Ann Stiles, presented a report to the board members on what exactly happened with the changes in the contract of its former CEO, David Armijo, who the board fired at their last meeting two weeks ago.


Armijo had been accused of improprieties based on whistle blower complaints made by former HART employees, prompting an independent investigation by a local labor firm and a four week paid suspension. Although the official charges were never released to the public, they included claims that he violated HART policies when it came to hiring, promoting and demoting staff members.


And as the board met on April 18 to decide his fate, they ended spending an extensive amount of time going over changes to his contract.


Armijo's initial contract said he could be fired for cause if he violated HART policies. But the contract was rewritten to use more general words such as "willful" subordination. But days later, it was also discovered that another change reduced severance pay for the chief executive from one year to 180 days for removal without cause, which hardly worked out in his favor.


Attorney Mary Ann Stiles presented a time line on how and when the changes to the contract were made to board members on Monday, and said the insertions came from the contract of the woman who Armijo preceded, Sharon Dent (which is why the new contract included the phrase "she" instead of "he").


When asked if she could determine who requested those changes, Stiles replied, "I don't know, and I don't know if we'll ever know."


The board did not take up too much time on reviewing that information, other than to acknowledge that the way they were blindsided by those changes didn't help their reputation in the community, despite the fact that the agency continues to pile up awards for its service on a national level. Board member Fran Davin said it was "stunning" to her that so many changes could have been made in Armijo's contract, with so many emails and other forms of communication going back and forth without those changes being highlighted.


"Somebody's career has been seriously affected, and the credibility of this board has been under strain," she said.


Board members also talked about getting more regular updates on the budget, which is estimated to be in a deficit for 2012 and 2013 fiscal years, which could mean some serious cutbacks at the agency would be required.

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With Hillsborough County's transit agency in disarray just weeks after the board fired its CEO, and with the light rail measure's rejection by Hillsborough voters a reality, County Commissioner and HART board member Mark Sharpe today proposed that the terminate its Alternative Analysis study that has been used to find the best transit source and routes - a requirement that the federal government has when providing funding for local transit.

But though he had initial support to kill that study which in many ways is no longer relevant with rail and matching federal funds no longer in the immediate picture, board members ultimately supported a plan proposed by Commissioner Kevin Beckner that will allow the HART staff working on the study to come back before the board with different options about how to finish up the study and still make it a document that could be useful for years to come when rail may come back before the community.

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