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More puzzling changes found in ousted Hillsborough transit chief's contract

TAMPA — HART chief executive David Armijo was fired this week in part because some board members think he ordered his contract changed without their knowledge to make it harder to get rid of him.

But in the days since Armijo's firing from the Hilllsborough transit agency, board members have learned of yet another contract change. And this one doesn't benefit Armijo.

In his old contract, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit CEO would have received a year's severance pay if he was fired. The revised contract only requires a six-month payout — a $90,000 loss for Armijo.

Board members are confused. Armijo, who denied making any secret contract changes, said this is clear proof he didn't.

"Why would I want to reduce my severance package by 50 percent?" he said Friday. "That doesn't make any sense."

For some board members, this latest twist in the contract saga highlights what they contend are serious oversight problems at the bus agency, which has an annual budget of $62 million.

"We have to show a level of competence and right now we can't figure out how the contracts are put together," said board member Mark Sharpe, a Hillsborough County commissioner.

After Monday's firing of Armijo, board members ordered a review of all HART policies and procedures. Sharpe said Friday that he wants his peers on to go a step further and stop studies on projects that aren't already funded, including light rail.

That way, board members and agency chiefs can get back to the basics of running and managing a bus system with a tighter grip, Sharpe said.

"We're going to restore the confidence in this agency," he said.

Sharpe is one of several board members who have asked for a thorough investigation of how Armijo's contract changes came about, particularly since the issue of severance raises even more questions.

"As they say, curiouser and curiouser," said Kevin Beckner, a board member and county commissioner.

In December, board members gave Armijo a raise they approved and included in a revised contract. Clauses that appear favorable to Armijo also slipped in. One called for an additional vote on top of a majority to fire him. Another replaced fireable "for cause" violations with broad terms that define insubordination.

Those changes became known to many board members for the first time at a special meeting Monday where Armijo was facing several workplace complaints alleging conflicts of interest, favoritism and hostile demotions or reassignments.

Puzzled board members wondered then who had made the contract changes, and former HART attorney Clark Jordan-Holmes told them Armijo ordered them. Armijo wasn't asked about the contract changes. But at the end of the night, he was fired in a 7-4 vote.

"I'm as much in the dark as everybody," he said Friday. "I did not make any changes or decisions regarding those changes."

They don't make any sense to him. He wouldn't have traded the one additional vote of job security for more than $90,000 in severance, he said. He would have much preferred his old contract terms, which also benefited HART since it allowed the agency to keep him as a consultant.

Armijo said he only learned of the contract changes a month ago from his attorney. Even then, he said, he didn't know his severance pay had been cut. He declined to speculate, but said he didn't think Jordan-Holmes had a motive to change the contract, either. Jordan-Holmes did not return a call Friday.

"I think somebody just screwed up," Armijo said.

The changes included yet another questionable contract clause that came to light Friday stating Armijo could be terminated or suspended "if unable to perform her duties and responsibilities because of sickness, accident, injury, mental incapacity, or health for a period of three (3) successive months ..."

The wording was not in his past contracts.

But similar phrasing does appear in the contract of another government official whose June firing remains a contentious tangle: former Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean's contract.

It stated that Bean could be terminated if she was "unable to perform her duties for any reason, including but not limited to sickness, accident, injury, mental incapacity or health for a period of four successive months ..."

Since being fired, Bean and the county remain locked in a fight over hundreds of thousands of dollars of severance. Hillsborough commissioners have blamed unclear and vague definitions of firing offenses in her contract that have allowed her to continue seeking more money.

When told of the contract similarities, Armijo said he had never heard of them until now. Perhaps Jordan-Holmes' aides made a mistake, he said.

"I didn't see that," he said. "Was there a chance paralegals were doing cut and paste? That happens."

The contract similarities only heightened Sharpe's suspicions and reaffirmed his resolve to "right the ship."

"Now I hear this?" he said.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]

More puzzling changes found in ousted Hillsborough transit chief's contract 04/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 10:37pm]
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