Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Politics

Lawmakers taking aim at Hillsborough agency after chief's moonlighting revealed

TAMPA — It already was pretty likely that the state Legislature would move to overhaul or abolish the Hillsborough County agency that regulates cabs, limousines, ambulances and other cars for hire.

So news that the county's Public Transportation Commission's executive director has been moonlighting on days that payroll records show him to be working or sick couldn't have worse timing.

Whether it's the same executive director, Cesar Padilla, writing his own performance evaluations or a former board chairman accepting bribes, the 10-person agency has gathered an outsized share negative attention through the years. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who heads the state Senate Transportation Committee, and Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, say they have heard enough.

Both emphasized they see a need for some form of oversight to ensure that when someone calls a cab that there's not a criminal behind the wheel and that he's insured and driving a safe vehicle.

"That doesn't mean we have to accept some of the baggage that comes with it," Grant said.

What the legislation will look like, neither is sure. It could mean changing how the PTC functions or farming out some of its work to other governments. And, yes, they say dissolving the agency is an option.

Lawmakers typically start crafting locally focused bills in September for consideration by the Hillsborough County delegation in the fall and ultimately the full Legislature next year.

"Something's coming. I can promise you that," Grant said.

Brandes said he's increasingly hearing from business owners who interact with the agency and local public officials saying something needs to be done.

"They don't come to me singing the PTC's praises," he said.

Officials with the agency are acutely aware they are under the legislative microscope. Its board last month voted to pay $72,000 for the next year for the services of lobbying firm Corcoran & Johnston and voted this month to seek public relations help.

The agency's costs are covered by fees it charges companies for permits and inspections. It typically takes in between $1.2 million and $1.4 million, said its chief inspector, Mario Tamargo.

PTC Chairman Victor Crist, a county commissioner, said the expenses are necessary to better tell the Legislature, the public and the companies it regulates about what it does and why. It doesn't have the manpower internally.

It was Crist who began raising questions about Padilla's outside work when negotiating a contract with him, which the director had not had previously. He said Padilla objected to a provision prohibiting outside work unless his salary was raised to compensate him for work he would be forced to give up.

Sheriff's Office records show Padilla, a former PTC inspector with law enforcement powers, serves as a reserve deputy and qualifies for off-duty security assignments. They show that Padilla has picked up security shifts with an auction house, including days when county payroll records reflect he was on the clock or reporting sick.

Earlier this year, Crist discovered Padilla had been crafting his own work evaluation in the chairman's name.

Still, he contends the agency does valuable work and should not be abolished. He said he's working now with the county attorney's office to craft policies and procedures at the PTC for employee and board conduct, which have been largely missing.

"Does it need to change? Yes," Crist said. "To eliminate this agency would be to eliminate consumer protections and safeguards that other counties wish they had."

Padilla was out of the office late this week and has not responded to messages seeking comment.

Other counties have consumer agencies that regulate aspects of the for-hire vehicle business. Hillsborough alone has a special district with that sole purpose.

It was created in 1976 under a special act of the Legislature to create a uniform set of rules between the counties and cities for for-hire vehicle operators, eliminate duplication among them and promote safety. It sets rules for vehicle operators, establishes fares for cabbies and fair limits or minimums in other cases, and inspects vehicles.

The PTC also sets limits on the number of vehicles based on a determination of need.

From the beginning, it has faced accusations that it mainly serves to protect the interests of a handful of companies that hold most of the permits.

Two years ago, former County Commissioner Kevin White was convicted of taking bribes as PTC chairman from an undercover FBI agent posing as a tow-truck company operator.

Tamargo, the chief inspector who serves as the agency spokesman, said that despite those headlines, the agency serves its mission, ensuring consumers get safe drivers in reliable vehicles and under terms that allow people to make a living.

"I believe in this agency," he said. "If they ever do away with it . . . it's going to be a mess."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

Comments
Democrats jubilant, and newly confident about 2018, as Alabama delivers win on Trumpís turf

Democrats jubilant, and newly confident about 2018, as Alabama delivers win on Trumpís turf

The Democratsí seismic victory Tuesday in the unlikely political battleground of Alabama brought jubilation ó and a sudden a rush of confidence ó to a party that has been struggling to gain its footing since Donald Trump won the presidency 13 months ...
Published: 12/13/17
Tax package would lower top tax rate for wealthy Americans

Tax package would lower top tax rate for wealthy Americans

WASHINGTON ó Congressional Republicans on Tuesday rushed toward a deal on a massive tax package that would reduce the top tax rate for wealthy Americans to 37 percent and slash the corporate rate to a level slightly higher than what businesses and co...
Published: 12/12/17
Trump signs $700 billion military budget into law

Trump signs $700 billion military budget into law

WASHINGTON ó President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed into law a sweeping defense policy bill that authorizes a $700 billion budget for the military, including additional spending on missile defense programs to counter North Koreaís growing nuclear w...
Published: 12/12/17
Donald Trump Jr. demands inquiry of House Intelligence Committee leak

Donald Trump Jr. demands inquiry of House Intelligence Committee leak

WASHINGTON ó Donald Trump Jr., the presidentís eldest son, has asked the House Intelligence Committee to open an investigation into leaked information related to his closed interview with the committee last week."To maintain the credibility of the in...
Published: 12/12/17
Original Watergate lock that burglars picked open is going to auction

Original Watergate lock that burglars picked open is going to auction

WASHINGTON -ó Itís the lock that launched a two-year investigation and took down a president. And now more than four decades later ó and for a starting bid of $50,000 ó it can be a really wonky conversation piece.Nate D. Sanders Auctions will auction...
Published: 12/12/17
Democrats say Trumpís tweets about Gillibrand sexist, unsavory

Democrats say Trumpís tweets about Gillibrand sexist, unsavory

WASHINGTON ó Plowing into the sexual harassment debate in a big way, President Donald Trump laced into Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Tuesday, tweeting that the New York Democrat would come to his office "begging" for campaign contributions and "do anyth...
Published: 12/12/17
Obama, Biden and Trump make late pushes in Alabama Senate race

Obama, Biden and Trump make late pushes in Alabama Senate race

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. ó National political leaders, a Hollywood actress and a retired basketball star made last-ditch efforts to woo voters in the Alabama Senate race Monday, as the candidates gave their final arguments in a pivotal special election that ...
Published: 12/12/17
PolitiFact: Looking back at the Trump teamís falsehoods of 2017

PolitiFact: Looking back at the Trump teamís falsehoods of 2017

President Donald Trump made many inaccurate statements in 2017. His White House team seems to be following in his footsteps when defending him. Some of Trumpís staffers have made the argument that it is valid to use inaccurate facts to bolster larger...
Published: 12/11/17
Updated: 12/12/17
PolitiFact: Notable misstatements about Donald Trump from 2017

PolitiFact: Notable misstatements about Donald Trump from 2017

President Donald Trump’s words can be at odds with reality, a fact we’ve documented again and again during his first year in office. His claim that the Trump-Russia investigation is a "made-up story" earned Trump our 2017 Lie of the Year....
Published: 12/11/17
Updated: 12/12/17
Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority plays beat the clock on GOP tax bill

Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority plays beat the clock on GOP tax bill

TAMPA ó With the Republican tax bill poised to eliminate the opportunity, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority on Monday said it had refinanced a big chunk of its debt to save money in the future.The authority borrowed $152 million from the bo...
Published: 12/11/17