Hillsborough's Public Transportation Commission faces an uncertain future

The PTC continues to battle strong opposition on the right and the left.

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click to enlarge PTC’S PR PROB: “Nobody really understands what it is,” says chair Victor Crist. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
PTC’S PR PROB: “Nobody really understands what it is,” says chair Victor Crist.

When Cesar Padilla announced his retirement last month after a tumultuous six-year reign as executive director of Hillsborough County’s Public Transportation Commission, there were few tears shed anywhere.

Adjectives like “beleaguered,” “embattled” and “besieged” seemed always to be attached as a prefix to Padilla’s name in the press, but the revelation that he had been moonlighting from his PTC post over the past two years as a security guard quickly became his epitaph. Further humiliation ensued when Hillsborough County Chief Deputy Jose Docobo informed Padilla that he had failed to meet the requirements as a reserve sheriff’s deputy (needed for the security job), and ordered him to turn in his deputy equipment and credentials and cease any law enforcement activity.

But to tell you how low the bar has been dropped when it comes to the ethical reputation of the PTC, Padilla’s ignominious downfall hardly qualifies as the agency’s worst moment in recent years.

No, that would have to be when former County Commissioner Kevin White was busted two years ago taking bribes for helping tow company operators get permits in his role as PTC chair. White is now almost halfway through his three-year sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

Padilla’s meltdown certainly didn’t enhance Victor Crist’s quixotic battle to save the PTC from potential elimination by fed-up Bay area lawmakers in Tallahassee. But what may hurt Crist’s chances as much as the agency’s previous history of corruption is the perception that it is stifling the entrepreneurial spirit, especially when it comes to a sexy new startup.

Victor Crist was a state legislator representing North Tampa for 18 years before he ran for the District 2 Hillsborough County Commission seat in 2010. He ran and won again last year, with his only serious competition coming from Tea Party activist Sharon Calvert in the GOP primary. He took over as chairman of the PTC less than a year ago.

To hear him describe it, Crist quickly learned that the inner workings of the agency were a mess. “Over time it’s become very exclusive, staff-driven, short-sighted and unreceptive to the consumer, and a little too close to the industry it serves.” So he says he’s been working on basic reforms to fix it, such as having human resources define what each member of the seven-member staff actually does, employing better accounting procedures, having more transparency, and clarifying ethical standards.

But even with state legislators saying that now’s the time to kill the agency outright, Crist is bullish on the PTC, and says it’s worth reforming.

Say what?

“The biggest problem the PTC has is that nobody really understands what it is,” he said of the agency, which was created by the state legislature in 1976 to regulate taxis, limousines, vans and basic life-support ambulances in Hillsborough County. No other such entity exists in the state of Florida.

He admits that before he took over he wasn’t sure what to make of the agency because of its unrelentingly miserable public image, but now he’s its top cheerleader, saying, “It’s less bureaucracy, it’s less expensive, and, if run correctly, more transparent and more receptive” than what is happening throughout the state.

Crist says that without the the PTC, hailing a cab or town car in the county would be the equivalent of the “wild, wild west,” with “everybody walking around with a holster around the waist shooting at everybody.” By that he means that the agency’s set of rules and regulations benefits consumers. County Commissioner Les Miller, who also serves on the PTC, agrees.

“When I first got to the Legislature in 1992, I took a taxi from the airport in Tallahassee to the Capitol,” Miller told CL last week. “I prayed that we didn’t break down. You don’t have that issue in Hillsborough County … You can talk to people in those other counties. They have some serious problems that we don’t have.”

Critics say that’s b.s.

“The regulations are the reason why it’s not the wild, wild west,” says Ken Lucci, who owns several limousine companies in both Pinellas and Hillsborough County. He agrees that vehicle rules and annual inspections are necessary, “but I would disagree with him in saying that the PTC is the reason. That’s a political statement.”

And Lucci calls dealing with the agency an “administrative nightmare,” referring to what happened when he decided to create a separate company to operate his big vehicles under a separate insurance policy. He said he was able to make the change on the state level going to the Department of Transportation website and paying $14.

But making that same change at the PTC level involved a vote by the PTC board and a $500 charge.

To Jeff Brandes, a special agency created back when Gerald Ford was president is no longer relevant in 2013. “How is this vital to consumer safety in Hillsborough County, but it’s not vital to consumer safety in Pasco, Manatee, Pinellas or frankly most other counties in the state of Florida?” he asks.

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