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HART board agrees to scrutinize contracts more closely

TAMPA — The mystery behind secret contract changes that contributed to the dismissal of Hillsborough County's top bus agency executive cleared up a little Monday.

A post-mortem didn't completely explain who had made every controversial change to David Armijo's contract, or how the changes slipped past the Hillsborough Regional Transit governing board.

But it did identify problems in the way the board reviews contracts.

"The board must be more hands-on," member Fran Davin said.

Board members also agreed to stop exploring light rail routes and other alternative transit methods, absent money to build them. HART has put $1.9 million toward that effort.

"Let's get back to the basics," HART member Mark Sharpe, a Hillsborough commissioner said. "Let's do it right."

Armijo, HART's chief executive since 2007, was fired at an April 18 board meeting after employees accused him of conflicts of interest, retaliatory demotions or transfers and favoritism in hiring. During the meeting, board members learned for the first time of changes to Armijo's 2010 contract.

The amended contract required an additional vote on top of a majority tally to fire Armijo. It also changed the criteria to terminate him with cause. For instance, instead of violating HART policy, he would have to commit "gross negligence" to get fired. HART's attorney during the contract revisions, Clark Jordan-Holmes, told board members that Armijo had ordered the changes, a claim Armijo has denied.

While the revisions seemed to favor Armijo, another clause seemed to work against him. Severance pay was cut in half, a loss of more than $90,000. Another portion referred to Armijo as "her," raising speculation that the phrase had been lifted from someone else's contract.

That seemed to be the case, HART attorney Mary Ann Stiles told board members Monday. She had been asked to identify and trace back each of the changes and found more than 15.

Some changes were discussed as early as July between Armijo, Olga Gonzalez (HART's manager of executive policy and board relations) and Jordan-Holmes, Stiles said.

Armijo wanted a contract that didn't conform to the terms and conditions extended to other HART employees, Stiles said. So Gonzalez and Jordan-Holmes modeled Armijo's contract after one used by Sharon Dent, who ran HART for 15 years until 2005.

At about the same time, board members decided to give Armijo a raise, which had to be written into the contract.

All sorts of contract changes were in play. In November and December, board members discussed Armijo's new contract at three meetings. Jordan-Holmes didn't give them copies of the entire revised draft then, but he did invite them to review specific clause changes at the end of one meeting, Stiles said.

No one took him up on it.

It appeared that Armijo didn't review a revised contract either, Stiles said, since he didn't catch the severance change.

The fine points of his contract were getting ironed out even after the board signed off on it, she said.

"It doesn't appear there was any intent to hide anything," Stiles said.

But Stiles couldn't determine who made the specific termination clause changes. All she knew was that they showed up on Oct. 28. Jordan-Holmes didn't know how they got there, Stiles said.

"I think there's plenty of blame to go around," board member David Mechanik said.

Davin said board members need to be more cautious about contracts and pay more attention to details.

HART board member Kevin Beckner, a Hillsborough commissioner, called for future contract changes to be plainly marked. From now on, the board agreed, chief executive and attorney contracts will be examined by all.

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

HART board agrees to scrutinize contracts more closely 05/02/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 2, 2011 10:31pm]
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