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Board shrugs off critical report

At the first meeting of the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority since the state auditor general delivered a stern report on its actions and policies, the mood was not one of anxiety or concern.

"We have made some mistakes, but most of the issues were made by boards in the past," board member James T. Hargrett said Monday.

Most other members seemed to agree with Hargrett that the auditor general's report dealt with "ancient history."

Even interim attorney Rhea Law said that the report didn't require immediate action.

Member Gwen Miller asked if the board should comply with the recommendation that the authority jettison its controversial lobbyist, John Beck.

But Law said no.

"This is a preliminary and tentative report with preliminary and tentative recommendations," she said.

Not all board members had read the report issued Wednesday night - member Robert Clark had to ask for a copy - and Law went through each of its 13 points, explaining how the authority was already addressing the auditor's criticism.

For example, the report noted the board had not received any expenditure reports since 2004.

Law explained that the reports stopped during the crisis following the collapse of the half-built upper span of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. The agency was still recovering, she explained.

"We're getting back to standard operating procedures," Law said.

The audit criticized the board for firing its legal counsel, Steve Anderson, without any public discussion. Law said the board should simply move on and not repeat its mistake.

"This is something that happened in the past," she said of the July 28 vote.

(Later in the day she led a workshop on the state's open government law for the board members.)

The auditor's report asserted that the agency has no authority to hire a lobbyist like Beck.

Law said the law was "not really clear."

The board did take one action in response to the report, however.

The report said the board shouldn't have named its engineering consultant, Jim Drapp, as "temporary interim executive director" after Ralph Mervine was found to own a gay porn film company and summarily quit as executive director.

The agency could not employ a person also under contract as a consultant, the report said.

At Law's direction, the board issued a clarification of Drapp's position, saying he was simply extending his normal duties as consultant.

The board also cleared its planning director, Martin Stone, to sign documents in the absence of an executive director.

The board also voted on a short list of candidates for interim executive director.

The three finalists are Stephen L. Reich, program director for transportation program evaluation and economic analysis at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research; Daniel P. Fanning, formerly executive director of the South Carolina Transportation Department and director of the Rhode Island Transportation Department; and Stone, of the authority.

A search for a permanent replacement for Mervine is under way.

Not everyone seemed assured that the agency is long for this world.

Developer Tom Scarritt came before the board asking to lease a piece of property. He told the members that while he personally had faith that the agency would persevere, he hoped they would move quickly, so he wouldn't have to deal with another agency if the board were disbanded.

"Time is of the essence," he said.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.

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