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Hillsborough transit agency to conduct national search for new executive

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith was elected as the transit agency’s next board chair.

TAMPA — The board of Hillsborough’s transit authority took action Monday to determine future leadership and direction of the agency, including a search for a chief executive and the election of new board officers.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority decided to conduct a national search for a new chief executive rather than offer the permanent role to Carolyn House Stewart, who has served as interim executive since November.

Stewart, the agency’s director of risk and legal services, said she would be interested in serving as the permanent chief of the agency, which has more than 800 employees and operates about 180 vehicles along 34 bus routes.

“We have the perfect person to do the job right here,” chairman Les Miller said.

Miller proposed the board skip a national search and hire Stewart, who was appointed as interim when former CEO Ben Limmer was placed on leave following a whistleblower complaint. Limmer resigned in March after an investigation found he violated spending practices and had inappropriate dealings with vendors.

A number of board members complimented Stewart for her performance the past six months but said it was important for public trust and transparency to conduct a national search and evaluate all qualified candidates.

A wider search would allow whoever is chosen to “hold that job with the full confidence of the public, the press, the staff knowing they were chosen from all the best candidates in the country in a fair, public, transparent process,” Hillsborough Commissioner Mariella Smith said.

Board member Kathleen Shanahan agreed, but warned that the process would be more time consuming and challenging than some board members were ready to admit.

“Many of you are underestimating the challenge it will be to attract a national candidate after some of the challenges we went through the last time,” Shanahan said, " ... and with an agency in transition on many fronts and a challenging financial situation.”

Limmer, who was hired after a national search, was on the job for less than a year when the allegations of improper purchasing tactics and vendor relations surfaced in November. The financial future of the organization is also in limbo while the county awaits a Florida Supreme Court ruling that will determine whether a one-cent sales tax will stay in place.

The revenue would more than double the existing $120 million budget.

Miller, who has supported Stewart since she took the role, pointed to Limmer’s brief, fraught time as chief executive as a warning that a national search doesn’t guarantee the best results.

"You all know what happened when we did that national search,” Miller said. “Miss Stewart had to come in and clean up the mess that was made.”

Related: Hillsborough transit CEO Ben Limmer allowed to resign instead of be fired

The board voted to retain Stewart as interim chief executive while the search is conducted. Stewart is eligible to apply for the permanent position.

Board members also elected new officers, a process that was delayed several months when the board chose to deal with pressing matters like Limmer’s investigation and the Florida Supreme Court hearing on the tax.

Smith was elected as chair, replacing Miller. City of Tampa representative Melanie Williams remains vice chair, and Temple Terrace Councilman Gil Schisler remains secretary.

Shanahan and others commended Miller for his time as chair, including overseeing some emotional meetings.

“You lead us through some very tough and trying times,” Shanahan said. “I’ve got to tell you, this agency, this community and frankly all the rides of HART have a lot to thank you for.”

The last 40 minutes of the virtual meeting saw tension arise over the role of the board when it comes to procurement. Some board members, including Shanahan and Miller, raised concerns about micromanaging staff.

“This is a slippery slope and could turn into a very serious whole snowball effect,” Miller said. “I do have some concerns that this could very, very well get us in trouble, but we’ll see what happens.”

Related: Hillsborough transit meeting goes off the rails during quarrel over contracts

Allegation of board interference and meddling have arisen before. Shanahan walked out of a January meeting after accusing county commissioner Pat Kemp of pushing her own agenda. The group was left unable to do business for lack of a quorum.

On Monday, Kemp wanted to appoint two board members — herself and Hillsborough Commissioner Kimberly Overman — to an ad hoc committee with agency staff on procurement, strategic planning and external relations.

“Absolutely, there’s a role for board members in this, and it’s not micromanagement,” Kemp said. “There’s no problem with having two members.”

But several members said there was no need to have more than one board member participate and that any extra threatened to exert undue influence over the process.

“I’ve got to call it out: I think this is over the line,” Shanahan said.

The board voted to appoint one member, Overman, to the ad hoc committee.

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