Saturday, November 18, 2017
News Roundup

Hillsborough PTC sued over fare regulations as its leader departs

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TAMPA — A limo operator and two of his potential customers filed a lawsuit against the Hillsborough County agency that regulates for-hire vehicles Wednesday claiming its $50 minimum fare rule is a government overreach.

They said the rule violates state constitutional due process protections by preventing drivers from making a living and customers from bargaining for the best price without a compelling public interest to justify it. And they say it denies limo operators equal treatment compared with drivers of other for-hire vehicles not subjected to minimum charges.

"I should be able to charge a price that's fair to (customers) and gives them more options for transportation," said Thomas Halsnik, owner of Black Pearl Limousine, one of the plaintiffs.

The suit was filed the same day that the Public Transportation Commission's executive director formally notified the chairman of the board that oversees the government agency that he is stepping down Friday. Cesar Padilla has scheduled a formal meeting with the county's human resources department today to initiate his retirement, its director said.

Padilla has been under fire over reports that he was moonlighting as a private security guard, including on days that county payroll records indicated he reported working at the PTC or taking sick time. The Sheriff's Office has revoked his commission as a reserve deputy, which enabled him to qualify for the moonlighting shifts at a Thonotosassa auction house.

Padilla has not returned multiple messages and a woman who answered the door at his home Wednesday said she had nothing to say before closing the door on a reporter.

PTC Chairman Victor Crist, meanwhile, said he has initiated a series of steps aimed at steering the agency from its current troubled waters. He has asked County Administrator Mike Merrill to recommend prospective candidates for the PTC board's consideration to lead the agency on an interim basis. The board does not meet until Sept. 11.

Crist said he also will ask county commissioners to direct Internal Auditor Michelle Leonhardt to conduct a review of the PTC's policies and procedures and recommend improvements.

He said he's hoping the interim appointment will take the approach of former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who temporarily took over the Children's Board of Hillsborough County last year at a time of transition and controversy.

"One of the first tasks of the interim director will be to run the agency but also to continue our efforts to move forward with internal reforms to improve controls, transparency and accountability," said Crist, saying whoever is assigned the task should come from outside the agency and have their own executive assistant.

Finally, Crist said he will ask fellow PTC board member and commissioner Les Miller to head up a search team to look for a permanent replacement.

The PTC was the center of attention on many fronts Wednesday after several whirlwind months. Padilla had faced scrutiny for a couple of reasons this year, including crafting his own glowing performance evaluation in Crist's name. The smart-phone application company Uber and its supporters also have criticized the agency over the minimum limo fare, saying it prevents them from offering a service that would allow customers to shop for rides.

A pair of state legislators has threatened a review and possible dissolution of the PTC saying its rules prohibit entrepreneurship in the for-hire vehicle businesses and serve mainly to protect existing companies. One of them, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, issued a statement applauding the lawsuit filed Wednesday.

"These restrictions on the private transit marketplace stifle innovation and discourage new business from coming to our community to grow and create jobs," Brandes said. "These rules are arcane and serve no purpose other than to limit competition."

The lawsuit was filed by the Florida branch of the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based public interest law firm with libertarian leanings that files lawsuits across the country challenging government actions and regulations.

Leaders of some of the major for-hire vehicle businesses attended a news conference called by the institute Wednesday to explain the lawsuit. They defended the minimum charge as one assuring that limo operators don't poach businesses that would go to cab drivers. They said it also ensures those same companies can make a reasonable return for their substantial investments in cars, drivers and the insurance polices that cover them.

They also defended the agency under the microscope, saying it shouldn't be destroyed due to the actions of individuals.

Dave Shaw, president of the West Florida Livery Association, said there are 160 licensed limo operators with between 800 and 900 vehicles in Hillsborough County.

"As far as competition, it's out there," he said. "It's been out there. The PTC has never hurt competition."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report.

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