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Former director of bus authority hits the road

The walls and desk in Larry Newman's office were bare. His diplomas and Tennessee posters were gone, and so was the clay sculpture of his dog, Honeybear, that sat on his desk beside his business cards. The empty office was a sign of a major change at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) on Wednesday.

It was the last day for Newman, the fired executive director. It was the first board meeting for new board Chairperson Gene Downs. And ATE Management and Service Co. was selected to run the PSTA for several months until a permanent successor is chosen.

Downs came armed with suggestions to solve persistent complaints that PSTA officials were out of touch with bus riders. He held an informal session with bus riders after the board meeting. He even said the PSTA would no longer charge fees to people who want copies of the agenda materials.

The changes seemed to satisfy the dedicated band of bus riders who religiously attend every board meeting. John Royse, who publishes an acerbic newsletter that often criticizes the PSTA, had some rare words of praise for the PSTA board.

"I think it's a good start," he said.

Board members also seemed encouraged by the changes Wednesday.

"Finally, there is a light at the end of the tunnel," said Pinellas County Commissioner John Chesnut Jr., a board member. "There are some changes under way that have been needed for a while."

Newman, who held the top job since 1987, was fired last month after nine months of turmoil at the agency. Board members said he had allowed the agency to drift from crisis to crisis and hadn't been enough of a leader.

Since then, Newman has declined to answer questions about his career and his future plans.

There were other signs Wednesday of major changes ahead at the PSTA. Board members agreed to ask legislators to reduce the PSTA board to seven members from the current 13. They said the large board has made it difficult to reach a consensus.

The board also approved a three-year contract with the PSTA's employee union and endorsed a plan from the St. Petersburg Housing Authority to carry passengers from St. Petersburg to job sites throughout the county. The Housing Authority plans to apply for a federal grant to finance the project.

ATE vice president George G. Caria is expected to replace Newman beginning Monday. ATE, a Cincinnati company that manages transit authorities across the nation, is the same company that was hired by the PSTA board to analyze the authority's management. The report gave a mixed review.

Board members said they picked Caria because they liked his enthusiasm and because he served three years as manager of a similar-size transit agency in Tucson, Ariz.

PSTA will pay the company $7,950 per month until the permanent manager takes over.

There were also some signs Wednesday that dramatic changes will not occur overnight at the troubled transit authority.

Board members criticized Downs because he had asked Newman to delay raises for senior employees until the interim manager took over. The board members said Downs should not get involved in day-to-day management decisions.

Board member Bill Gingras said he liked the way Downs took over as a leader, but Gingras does not want any board member to dominate the PSTA.

Board member John Sweeney was more upbeat. "It appears we are all going to be more responsive. Things are looking up."