Friday, April 20, 2018

Ruth: The agency where ethics goes to die

To better understand what a backwater the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission is, think of the agency as the bureaucratic equivalent of the neighbor at the end of the street with rusted-out cars sitting on blocks, beer cans scattered across the front yard and a collection of pet pythons.

On the surface, the PTC is supposed to regulate stuff like taxicabs and limo services. But since it was created in 1976 by Florida legislators who one can only imagine had been served too many the previous night at Clyde's & Costello's, the PTC has been a constant source of sweetheart deals, corruption and less accountability than a Zimbabwe election.

At the moment, the corrupt former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, a public official who was practically a walking bar code, is doing time for gratuities he accepted while serving as PTC chairman.

PTC investigators have arrest powers and are permitted to carry firearms in the service of an agency that is more opaque than the Skull and Bones Society. And now this.

White was succeeded as PTC chair by Commissioner Victor Crist, who had to feel he was assuming oversight of an agency with all the organizational framework of a pie fight.

It was probably just the merest hint to the commissioner that the PTC was a dark subterranean entity when he discovered the agency's executive director, Cesar Padilla, had been filling out his own glowing performance review with the expectation an unquestioning Crist would happily sign off on it.

And why not? That's how things always had been done. Besides, White had been too busy stuffing his pockets and whispering sweet incriminating nothings into FBI wiretaps to bother himself with whether Padilla showed up for work.

Crist was not amused to learn Padilla had described his work performance as exemplary, excellent and a pillar of management. The PTC narcissist praised his own compassion and extraordinary grace.

But really, since the PTC is a legislative creation that has never had bylaws, a mission statement or any clearly defined rules, how could Padilla, even writing his own job review, be so effusive?

It's quite easy, actually. Who else but Padilla, who has no job description, could evaluate his job performance over an agency that has no prescribed function? How existential? What would we call the PTC? The Seinfeld of government. An agency about nothing.

Crist learned that on paper, Padilla's post never has had any formal job description except one: It pays $107,078 a year. Little wonder he does it so well. And Crist also discovered Padilla, who was a reserve Hillsborough Sheriff's deputy until Monday, has earned an additional $10,400 over the last 20 months moonlighting as a security guard, occasionally providing security for Tampa Machinery Auction when he was supposed to be on the clock for the PTC.

You might be troubled by this apparent double-dipping. Get over it. This is Hillsborough County, whose official symbol ought to be an outstretched palm.

So Crist has embarked on an effort to rid himself and the PTC of Padilla's services. And he did so in a most cunning way. Crist decided to actually create a detailed job description for Padilla in the belief, as he explained to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, that the executive director will be an abysmal failure.

So sure is Crist that Padilla will prove that he is incapable of finding his own keister even with the help of the National Security Agency, the commissioner was to give Padilla a raise to $112,432 in return for giving up his rent-a-cop gig. That should not be necessary now.

Of course, Padilla's demise could come about another way. Apparently the Florida Legislature has finally come to its senses with Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and state Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, muttering about filing bills to abolish the PTC or completely overhaul the agency that common sense forgot.

It is probably fair to expect that neither Brandes nor Grant will seek Padilla's input in drafting their legislation.

That ought to free up Padilla to begin polishing his resume, detailing his extraordinary success doing whatever it is that he does — sometimes while he is being paid by somebody to do something else.

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