'Staff feels demoralized': HART board members never saw a year-old peer review raising concerns over management

The HART board chair was 'shocked' that the document was kept from her after repeated requests to see it.

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click to enlarge 'Staff feels demoralized': HART board members never saw a year-old peer review raising concerns over management
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As Hillsborough transit CEO Adelee Le Grand faces an investigation into allegations of a hostile work environment, a suppressed document shows that employees raised concerns about leadership over a year ago.

The document, obtained through a public records request, was produced by the American Public Transit Association (ATPA) and shows that employees at HART expressed worry over communication and transparency from management in September of 2021.

Workers from bus operators to top level management voiced their concerns in the review, but the HART board never received it from Le Grand, even after it was requested.

Board Chair Pat Kemp asked for the peer review several times over the past year, because Le Grand had told the board it would take place after she first started the job in January of 2021.

"I'm shocked that this was held back from the board," Kemp told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. "I can't emphasize enough how helpful this could have been for us. I'm going to ask for APTA to come in and update this report."
The peer review essentially acted as a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. In the review, communication and transparency from leadership was identified over and over again as a weakness.

"Staff do not feel valued and fear retaliation," one page reads. "Staff feels demoralized that new management has preconceived notions about their abilities."

"Low morale observable from almost every group interviewed," another page reads. "Perception of lack of communication/strategic vision from leadership down to impacted units."
"New policies not effectively communicated to employees," the document says. "Lack of communication leading to gossip/speculation. Vision is not disseminated to all levels of organization. Lack of transparency on decision making and resource allocation."

The document continued that the lack of transparency led to speculation within the organization that leadership was trying to drive HART toward a privatized model. Le Grand worked as a vice president for private transit entity Trans Dev before transitioning to HART.

Burnout among bus operators was also reported in the peer review, and many were forced to work on days off with threat of reprisal, the review said.

The peer review noted that many employees interviewed "seemed to be in the dark" about overall leadership or decision making. It also cited an "overall lack of transparency" at the organization.
APTA Made suggestions for management.

"Focus on top-down communication," the peer review reads, "seek employees' input." APTA recommended town hall meetings or other avenues to "disseminate information and proactively gather feedback."

But current and ex-employees tell CL that the communication issues only got worse. Meanwhile Le Grand says that she and the rest of management have held over 30 meetings to engage with the staff since last August.

Since the review took place back in 2021, CL has found that over 57 administrative level employees have left the organization through termination or quitting, including high-ranking officials. Le Grand has gone through four marketing and communications directors, with one of them calling her a "dictator and a tyrant" in a leaked resignation letter.
These issues, along with a high ranking official caught working two jobs, have prompted the investigation into Le Grand. She narrowly avoided suspension by the board this week, which held a tied vote meaning that the motion to suspend failed.

The peer review does note that there were pre-existing issues at the organization, which has seen a rapid turnover of CEOs in recent years, which "undermines incentives to undertake long-term planning and execution." The report also noted that managers were not held accountable for reports provided to higher-level management.

The positive aspects of the review include staff being able to "hold down the fort" during constant change at the organization and that HART does a good job on its financial reports.

In a statement sent to CL, Le Grand said that she was hired to improve the service that HART provides to the community, while also changing the internal culture. It was imperative that she quickly learn the issues and challenges that she needed to make a top priority, she said.

"I spent the first six to nine months gathering information through internal discussions and speaking with subject matter experts. Part of that process was hiring the American Public Transportation Association to conduct a peer review," Le Grand wrote. "As a leader, I believe in bringing solutions to the board, so I created an Action Plan for moving forward rather than focus on past problems. I presented the plan to the board in the Fall of 2021 and have provided regular updates on the progress."

However, the APTA document doesn't just focus on past problems. The review also specifically refers to current and new management. Le Grand has not yet responded to the concerns over new management.

Former county commissioner Mariella Smith, who was a HART board director for four years until last month, told CL she had anticipated the peer review since last year, but never got to see it.

"I was expecting the review to be very helpful and certainly it should have been brought to the board when it was completed," Smith said. "And the results of the review should have been communicated to the employees. It should have been utilized by management to move forward."
Kimberly Overman, who also sat on the HART board of directors last year, had similar sentiments about the review not being provided to the board.

"I do know that there's not as much transparency as I would have liked between the board and HART's management," Overman said. "So it made it really hard for us to do our job, which is to advise and guide and evaluate performance."

Overman also pointed out that with HART's lack of proper funding, it will be difficult for any CEO to operate the organization to its potential. HART, which serves the county's nearly 1.5 million residents, is one of the most underfunded transit agencies in the country.

HART board member Gil Schisler said that he doesn't remember the peer review being requested in an open forum, but he had asked Le Grand about it a couple of times. He said the board's job isn't to get involved in the every day operations of HART, but said he'll review the document because it might be useful for the board's mission to guide and advise the CEO.

All of the board members acknowledged that Le Grand did not walk into a healthy scenario, and that many of the problems at HART existed before her arrival. But they all said that transparency is an important aspect of leadership.

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia has written for The Nation, Investigative Reporters & Editors Journal, the USA Today Network and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

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