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HART board fires embattled CEO

HART CEO David Armijo earned $185,000 a year. He oversaw a staff of 767 employees and a budget of $62 million.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

HART CEO David Armijo earned $185,000 a year. He oversaw a staff of 767 employees and a budget of $62 million.

TAMPA — After meeting for more than four hours and taking several competing votes, directors of Hillsborough County's mass transit system decided Monday night to fire embattled chief executive David Armijo.

The termination, on a 7-4 vote, caps a monthlong suspension with pay for Armijo while an internal investigation was conducted into employee allegations against him.

Board members weighed the meritorious job they said Armijo has done restoring a faltering transit agency over 31/2 years by increasing ridership, employees and routes against allegations of a pattern of disregard for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit policies.

They considered putting him on probation for three months and splitting his duties with another agency director. But ultimately the directors decided those arrangements would paralyze leadership and continue to alienate employees.

"It's unfortunate," Armijo said after the vote. "I appreciate the time the board deliberated, but it was done in the absence of facts."

Armijo earned $185,000 a year. His severance includes 180 days of pay and benefits. He oversaw a staff of 767 employees and a budget of $62 million.

He was suspended with pay March 21 after at least three written complaints were filed against him in February.

They say he created a hostile workplace by demoting or shuffling subordinates who questioned his decisions, including hiring or promoting for positions not in the budget. Their allegations also include cashing out unused vacation time without following HART procedures.

Armijo was also accused of conflicts of interest such as renting a Harbour Island condominium from a labor lawyer who does contract work for HART, and hiring a woman whose husband had been Armijo's real estate agent.

The specific complaints against Armijo, as well as those who made them, were shielded behind state whistle-blower protection laws.

But the St. Petersburg Times has spoken to at least two of the complainants, as well as former employees who have raised concerns about Armijo.

About 12 employees have brought complaints directly to Armijo since 2008, according to the law firm hired to investigate.

Between 7 and 10 employees who had voiced concerns were reassigned to various positions while two of them received pay cuts, board members heard.

But what appeared to have the most impact on the board was the revelation that Armijo promoted Olga Gonzalez from special assistant to the CEO to manager of executive policy and board relations with a more than $15,000 pay increase.

Gonzalez was still on probation as a new hire when she received the promotion, and HART's director of human relations had warned Armijo that such a promotion would create more workforce complaints, which were already coming in.

The director, Michael Stephens, also said he told Armijo such moves would open the agency to "pay equity" lawsuits, as would his reshuffling of key personnel to what appeared to be demotions.

But board members were clearly taken aback when many learned for the first time Monday that Armijo last year had ordered then-HART attorney Clark Jordan-Holmes to rewrite his contract to change termination clauses.

Armijo's initial contract said he could be fired for cause if he violated HART policies. But the contract was rewritten to use more general words such as "willful" subordination.

His initial contract allowed him to be fired by a majority vote of the board, but was rewritten to require a majority plus one vote.

The board of directors approved the changes in a December meeting, but none of them remember discussing it.

Monday night, seven of the 11 board members voted to fire him — a majority plus one vote.

The board appointed Philip Hale, who was the chief of HART maintenance and facilities, to serve as interim CEO.

This story has been updated to reflect that the board cast just enough votes Monday night to fire Armijo. An earlier version of the story mischaracterized the vote.

HART board fires embattled CEO 04/18/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 11:17am]
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