TAMPA — Victor Crist was taken aback last month when he got his agenda packet for the December meeting of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission.
Among the supposedly non-controversial consent items was an evaluation of agency executive director Cesar Padilla listing Crist, a Hillsborough County commissioner who is the new chairman of the PTC, as the author. Padilla had scored largely "fives" on a one-to-five scale and the comments made liberal use of words such as "excellent," "exemplary" and "adept."
"Mr. Padilla is an outstanding leader," read one complimentary passage. "He is often placed in difficult circumstances, but he has exemplary wisdom and compassion. These qualities enable him to lead with grace, despite the stressful circumstances that are presented to him regularly."
There was one problem: Crist didn't write the evaluation, Padilla did.
When Crist asked what gives, he said he was told that's the way it's always been done at the PTC.
"I said, 'At this juncture, if this was a private business, I would fire you,' " Crist said. "I was absolutely floored."
The ghost-written agenda was just one of the peculiarities Crist said he encountered as he prepared for his first meeting as the board's chairman. Other items included retroactive approval of raises awarded to PTC employees weeks earlier and a proposal to rent a new office for the agency from a towing company owner it regulates.
Crist would call for and win support for a sweeping evaluation of how the PTC conducts its business, up to and including how the board handles its meetings. He said he has quickly discovered that there are few written rules for how the agency runs.
"The PTC doesn't have anything," Crist said. "No bylaws. No mission statement. No rules."
Other board members would say later that some of Crist's concerns were overblown. They've long used Robert's Rules of Order to run meetings, for instance, even if that's not spelled out in any rule book. PTC employees were able to provide various agreements with county government detailing their use of its payroll system, human resources guidelines and other back-office operations. The agency lists a purpose statement, if not a mission, on its website.
Still, some of the other board members said Crist had raised some valid concerns.
"When it came up that the evaluation was done by the executive director, I thought, 'This is a little out of the ordinary,' " fellow commissioner and PTC board member Les Miller said.
The allegations are the latest oddities at the PTC, a governmental agency with a narrow purpose that nevertheless draws outsized attention. The legislature created the agency, which is separate from county government, to regulate cars, limousines and other cars for hire.
Its board consists of elected officials from the county and its three cities and the 10-person staff and their expenses are paid through fees charged to the companies the PTC oversees.
Cab and limousine drivers regularly complain that the agency's rules and enforcement practices make it hard to make a living and favor the larger businesses.
It has been the focus of repeated corruption probes. Former county commissioner Kevin White is serving prison time for selling favors to towing company operators while he was PTC chairman.
Calls to Padilla were returned by Mario Tamargo, the PTC's chief of inspections who serves as the agency's spokesman.
Tamargo said Padilla's write-up was meant as a self-evaluation, one that Crist could borrow from, modify or use word for word in preparing a final review. He said Padilla met with Crist before the meeting, in part to go over it.
"There wasn't any intent to defraud anyone," Tamargo said. "It's the way it's been done and he went and talked to Victor the day before."
He pointed to the county's own evaluation procedures, which the PTC uses as a guide, that say the employee and supervisor should complete the first two sections of the review form.
Tamargo wasn't able to say why Crist is serving as Padilla's supervisor rather than the full PTC board. And he said he couldn't explain Padilla's use of the third person to describe himself or the listing of Crist as the evaluator.
Attempts to reach the last PTC chairman, Dan Raulerson, were unsuccessful. His predecessor, former Tampa City Council member Joseph Caetano, said he couldn't recall how Tamargo's evaluation was conducted. And the chairman before that, the person who orchestrated Padilla's ascension as PTC boss, was the now-imprisoned White.
PTC employees, like those in the county, have not received a merit raise for nearly five years, so the evaluation will have no bearing on Padilla's salary. Crist won approval to change procedures so all PTC members evaluate the executive director, with their ratings averaged out to provide an overall score that will be used to affect future pay raises.
County employees did however receive a one-time cost-of-living pay adjustment this year. Crist said he was also surprised to learn that Padilla authorized the $1,500 payment to PTC employees without the board's permission in November even though the agency is separate from the county.
Tamargo said the raises were actually granted to PTC employees by county officials, and Padilla simply notified his board in December to make them aware. But Crist pointed to Padilla's November memo to the county's clerk office in which he wrote that the PTC had elected to accept the pay adjustments, though the issue had not gone to its board.
Still, PTC board members agreed to let PTC employees keep the money.
But the issues kept coming at the Dec. 12 meeting. There also was a proposal from Padilla to rent a new building for the PTC's offices. New neighbors at the current offices on Kennedy Boulevard were eating up parking spaces, making it difficult for the agency to conduct its 3,000 annual vehicle inspections.
A prospective landlord had offered offices with a much larger parking area on Lois Avenue in Drew Park. Crist said he was told that the owner runs a PTC-regulated towing service at that location and there were no competitive bids sought.
Padilla said the board was not bound to any procurement rules when it comes to seeking new office space. Tamargo said later that the property owner, John Roberts, who runs Ascension Auto Service Towing & Property Control and is closing the business, was aware of the PTC's need for new space and offered his building at a decent price.
Board members voted to ask the county's real estate office to see if it has property available. In the absence, it wants the county to recommend a more formal way of seeking a new location.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.