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HART boss Armijo suspended for two more weeks

TAMPA — David Armijo has run HART since 2007, helping to stabilize the public transit agency financially while watching ridership increase.

But inside the organization, a picture of a hostile work environment is emerging from work force complaints disclosed Monday that point to Armijo as the cause.

They portray a man who disregarded agency policies or picked favorites during hiring and vendor selection. They allege reimbursements for unauthorized trips and reassignments for employees who voiced concerns.

Three employees made those allegations in complaints lodged against Armijo in February, which led to his suspension with pay March 21. On Monday, HART's board of directors extended the suspension another two weeks while they continue to sift through the claims.

Armijo, who oversees an annual $62 million budget, makes $185,000 a year. His five-year contract runs through 2012. He says his trips were work-related and authorized and denies contributing to a hostile workplace.

"We're not a hostile environment," he said. "Is it a hostile environment when two people are in disagreement with you out of 767?"

HART board members discussed some details of the employee complaints during a special meeting Monday. But many specifics — including who made them — remain confidential under state and agency whistle-blower protection laws and policies.

Dawn Siler-Nixon, a Tampa lawyer the HART board hired to investigate the claims, said the complaints show compelling evidence of misconduct. Besides the written complaints, 12 people brought complaints directly to Armijo since 2008, Siler-Nixon said.

While none of the allegations could be considered crimes, HART attorney Mary Ann Stiles told board members, "there were policies violated, and you need to find out why."

The investigation found that Armijo ordered 10 "reorganizations" of staff over 3 1/2 years to retaliate against those who raised concerns, drumming up fear in the workplace. Armijo dismissed the allegation, saying he's reshuffled staff just three times — all to account for positions left vacant because of attrition.

But some employees said retaliation went further than reassignment.

Ozie Jackson, a former HART bus driver, volunteered to the Times that she was one of the whistle-blowers. She said she met with federal labor officials, complaining about general mistreatment and the lack of black female supervisors and dispatchers. Six months later in 2009, she said, she was fired after management learned about her involvement.

HART told the three-year driver and union steward that she was terminated because of her driving record. But Jackson said she had just one ticket — from a red-light camera — and another infraction that was later cleared.

"I'm happy that they did not come to a decision to let him come back," Tiffany Jenkins, a HART bus driver, said after Monday's meeting.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said he respected Armijo's strong leadership style but said workers should be encouraged to come forward with concerns — not intimidated into silence.

"I also want a leader who can take criticism and never, ever retaliates against a staff member trying to do their job," Sharpe said. "I'm going to want complete and thorough answers from our CEO to make sure what our attorneys have presented is accurate."

Armijo said the specific complaints were withheld from him, and the board gave him a week to review everything that can be disclosed without violating whistle-blower protection laws. Another week will allow board members to meet with him individually for questions before an April 18 public meeting when discipline or termination could be discussed.

Armijo said he can disprove the charges, including the trips in question, which he said the board approved. In February, he said, he flew to San Diego for an American Public Transportation Association conference and in March he attended a legislative conference in Washington, D.C.

"There is a paper trail," he said.

Board members look forward to seeing it.

"I feel like I have half of the story," board member Fran Davin said.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

HART boss Armijo suspended for two more weeks 04/04/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 1:08am]

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