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Hillsborough transit meeting goes off the rails during quarrel over contracts

Beset by an investigation and a court case, the authority sees tempers flare between members Kathleen Shanahan and Pat Kemp.

TAMPA — With its chief executive under investigation and its funding held up in court, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority faces uncertain times.

Against this backdrop, tempers flared between two board members Monday as one of them — city of Tampa appointee Kathleen Shanahan — stood up and walked out after accusing county commissioner Pat Kemp of pushing her own agenda. The group was left unable to do business for lack of a quorum.

“That’s her whole point, was to not have the vote,” Shanahan said.

The dispute arose over a $405,000 contract during a board committee meeting, but it revealed deeper divisions over the agency’s process for hiring outside vendors.

The staff recommended awarding Connetics Transportation Group a two-year contract to evaluate bus routes and schedules and help the agency plan a long-term vision.

The transit authority is on the brink of moving beyond buses into options such as commuter rail, a longer streetcar route and a dedicated, high-frequency bus lane between downtown and the University of South Florida. But its future hinges on a Florida Supreme Court case that will determine whether the agency gets an additional $120 million each year from a transportation tax voters approved in November 2018.

Kemp criticized the agency’s contracting procedures, which drew just two bidders.

“I think we have significant questions about our procurement process and the way things have gone, and we have an open investigation going on," she said.

The investigation into the agency’s chief executive officer, Ben Limmer, has lasted for three months but few details have been made public. The transit authority’s legal counsel, David Smith, has said the investigation is related to “procurement processes, vendor relations and related matters.”

Related: Hillsborough transit chief placed on leave after whistleblower complaint

Shanahan pushed back on Kemp’s assessment, defending the contract process and the staff members who reviewed it. Information about the project was released in September, applications were due in October and evaluations were completed Dec. 13. Limmer was placed on administrative leave Nov. 3.

Shanahan criticized Kemp, the committee chair, for drawing connections between the new contract and the Limmer investigation.

“I think you’re surmising a lot,” Shanahan said. “You’re combining a lot of anecdotal circumstances into statements of fact."

Kemp, who made transportation a focus of her County Commission campaign, has advocated passionately for transit projects. Shanahan, a Tallahassee insider and business executive, has served on the transit authority board since 2014, the last three years with Kemp.

Attorney Smith warned repeatedly Monday morning that the committee was about to lose its quorum since Shanahan had announced she had to leave for a noon meeting. Still, the two kept trading barbs.

Shanahan accused Kemp of micromanaging staff and controlling a vote. Kemp faulted Shanahan for her personal attacks and trying to seize control of a meeting Kemp was chairing.

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“Excuse me, I’m chair here," Kemp said. “Instead of dealing with the issues, there have been implications made about my personal basis for this.”

Shanahan stood up from the table around 12:07 p.m., after about 15 minutes of discussion. Smith informed the committee that her departure left them too few members to take official action.

Shanahan told the Tampa Bay Times later that she believes Kemp should recuse herself as committee chair when there is a conflict of interest but she declined to elaborate.

Kemp told the Times she has no personal agenda but does question how contracts are reviewed and selected. Kemp would like to see board members notified of solicitations before they are sent out to vendors so officials can review the scope and terms involved.

The Connetics contract will go before the full board next week without a recommendation from the committee. The board is also expected to discuss the results of the investigation into its CEO.

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