As Hillsborough transit board narrows search for a new CEO, some say it’s moving too fast

Pointing to a growing revenue stream for the Hillsborough Regional Transit Authority, some say the process to a hire a new CEO for the agency is moving too quickly.
A Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus waits at the Northwest Transfer center in Tampa. The transit agency is searching for a new CEO to replace Katharine Eagan, who left in January 2018. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
A Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus waits at the Northwest Transfer center in Tampa. The transit agency is searching for a new CEO to replace Katharine Eagan, who left in January 2018. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published January 11
Updated January 13

TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s transit agency is poised to add about $1.4 billion dollars to its budget in the next decade — but first, it needs to hire a CEO.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Agency board is interviewing candidates this month to replace Katharine Eagan, who left for Pittsburgh a year ago.

Politicians and community members agree it is a pivotal time for the agency as it prepares to receive more than $130 million in new sales tax revenue each year on the heels of a November referendum. The agency’s current budget is about $80 million. But some are concerned that board members are narrowing the candidate field too quickly.

The board discussed nine potential candidates this week and culled the list to four with nearly no discussion of qualifications.

“I don’t think we need to go through each resume right now,” agency chair Les Miller told fellow board members at this week’s selection meeting. “We had an opportunity (to) review them. At this point, we make a solution.”

Board members then drafted three questions that the four candidates will answer on video. The board will review those recordings and meet Monday with the intent of narrowing the list of finalists, interim CEO Jeff Seward said.

Seward, who has no vote in the selection of the next CEO, said he would like to see “a more elongated” process. He said he expected there would be more discussion of qualifications, reference checks, strengths and weaknesses before board members cut more than half of the applicants.

Board members spent more time selecting the committee that will oversee the new sales tax than they did discussing the CEO candidates, “which surprised me,” Seward said.

The nine potential candidates included the chief development officer for Pinellas County’s transit agency, New Jersey Transit’s chief of staff, the state of Connecticut’s Public Transit Administrator, and the chief operating officer of San Diego’s transit agency. Board members stayed mostly regional with their selections, including one member of Hillsborough’s existing leadership team. The remaining candidates are:

• Carrie Osborne Butler, general manager of Lextran in Lexington, Ky.

• Cleveland Ferguson, chief administrative officer of the Jacksonville (Fla.)

Transportation Authority.

• Kenyatta Lee, chief administrative officer of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Agency, also known as HART.

• Benjamin Limmer, assistant general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.

The Tampa Bay Partnership, a business group that often weighs in on transportation issues, expressed concerns about the candidate pool and the timetable in a letter Thursday to Miller. Partnership leaders David Pizzo, Chad Loar and Barry Shevlin urged the agency to expand the list of candidates, take more time to conduct interviews and seek public comment.

“We are concerned that this current candidate pool offers limited experience in serving as the chief executive of a transit agency, and certainly not one as robust as HART will be with its new dedicated funding source,” their letter said.

Christina Barker, spokeswoman for All For Transportation, which put the 1 percent transportation sales tax on the ballot, said the group is confident the board will recruit the perfect fit for the next CEO, but added the process seems to be moving quickly. The board, she said, should take the time needed to find the best candidate.

Voters have decided to make an “unprecedented investment” in the agency, Barker said. “Now, we need a dynamic and accomplished leader who has the experience to bring and implement the best practices to Hillsborough County.”

Miller pushed back against the notion that the process has been rushed, saying it has moved “at a snail’s pace.” The selection committee formed several months ago and hired a consultant to help with recruitment, he said.

While the committee did not discuss each candidate as a group, Miller said each member had multiple days to review the resumes and ask the hiring consultant questions about the applicants. Miller said he is confident in the qualifications of the four candidates the board is considering, especially with the resources the agency has.

“We’re not looking at the salary of a person who’s in Charlotte or Seattle. … We don’t have those kinds of salaries here,” Miller said. “We will get the best possible candidates we can get. We felt as a committee that’s what we received from the consultant.”

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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