Sunday, May 20, 2018
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.

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