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Fruitless job search cost months, $62,500

Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) officials dissolved a committee that searched nationwide for a director of a new commuter program. Then they created a new committee that picked the officials' first choice: a DOT colleague. The DOT spent $62,500 on the search before project managers in Tallahassee and Tampa recommended DOT employee Bill Steele for the job. Then a new board set up by the transportation agency offered the $40,000-a-year position to Steele. A DOT employee since 1988, Steele said he is negotiating with the chairman of the newly formed Bay Area Commuter Service, or BACS.

BACS is a pilot project to encourage ride-sharing, riding the bus to work and other alternatives to single-occupant cars that crowd roads at rush hour. It has been in development since 1989 and probably won't get off the ground until fall, said project manager Bill Mustard.

"I've been kind of frustrated with the progress of this project because it's taken much longer than it should have," said Mustard, who is based in Tallahassee. "Every time I think we're getting one step further, something comes up."

A main reason for the delay was the protracted search for a director. To find a director, the DOT contracted with the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) at the University of South Florida. Established by the Legislature, CUTR gets operating money from the DOT but is a part of the university. It does research under contracts with federal, state and local transportation agencies.

CUTR received 55 applications for the job last summer and along with DOT officials narrowed the list.

When a committee was unable to endorse a candidate, Mustard and Bob Babis, a Tampa-based DOT administrator, suggested that Bill Steele would be a good candidate for the job.

Steele, 27, has a master's degree from the University of South Florida. He wrote his master's thesis on a Hillsborough County ride-sharing program, has worked for the DOT since 1988 and became the contact in the Tampa-based DOT district for the commuter pilot project. He also directed the original interview process that resulted in a deadlock among the evaluators.

Steele said he asked for the legal opinion last fall "just to feel good about my even applying for the thing" and "because I had a real concern that it might be a conflict."

The DOT's attorneys said it wasn't. The first time Steele asked, DOT attorneys said taking the job would not be a conflict because Steele would be going to another state agency. (At that time, the job would have been a part of CUTR.) Once BACS was formed, Steele asked again for an opinion. The attorneys said that wasn't a conflict, but did not explain why.

CUTR agreed to end its part in the search and the DOT helped set up BACS, the non-profit corporation. The BACS search committee interviewed four candidates, including Steele, all but one local. Chairman Len Tria offered the job to Steele last week at $40,000 a year. He now makes $31,300. The job was originally advertised at $50,000 a year.

"I guess it's a matter of perception, obviously," Tria said. "We tried to look at other people that had backgrounds we felt would be worthwhile, but I think there is an advantage to having someone that knows the program. If I thought it was tainted I wouldn't even have considered him."