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Finalists hail from coast to coast as Hillsborough seeks to fill top transit job

The transit authority board will discuss the eight candidates during a special meeting Wednesday afternoon.
Bus riders come and go recently at the Brandon Town Center Mall, a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority transfer stop location.
Bus riders come and go recently at the Brandon Town Center Mall, a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority transfer stop location. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Oct. 13, 2020

TAMPA — More than 160 people applied to lead a Hillsborough transit agency that has seen two leaders resign this year and awaits a court ruling that will determine its financial future.

A search firm narrowed the list to eight candidates to present at a special meeting Wednesday afternoon of the Hillsborough Regional Transit Authority board. The board will also appoint a new interim chief executive following the resignation last month of Carolyn House Stewart.

The eight candidates include an internal applicant from HART and a finalist from the agency’s last search in 2019.

The agency hasn’t had a long-term, permanent chief executive officer since Katharine Eagan left in January 2018.

Former chief financial officer Jeff Seward was appointed interim chief following Eagan’s departure and served until Ben Limmer was hired in March 2019. Limmer was placed on paid leave in November 2019 pending an investigation into his spending and he resigned in March. Stewart served as interim chief executive for 11 months before sending her resignation to the board’s chair and attorney in September.

For nearly two years, staff members have also been awaiting the outcome of a court case that would determine if the agency will see a large influx of money over the next 30 years. The agency, which overseas a service area nearly the size of Rhode Island, is one of the most underfunded transit authorities in the country.

Hillsborough County voters approved a one-cent transportation sales tax in November 2018. Nearly half of that revenue was supposed to go to the transit authority. But officials are waiting to spend it until they receive a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court on whether the tax is constitutional.

The next chief executive will oversee 800 employees and a budget has increased dramatically in the nearly three years since Eagan left, jumping from $100 million to more than $150 million. But much of that can be attributed to federal coronavirus relief money, which likely won’t be available in future years.

“The next CEO of HART is expected to be a strategic thinker, with excellent interpersonal skills who can build an effective team and work collaboratively at all levels of the organization as well as with community stakeholders," a brochure for the job opening said.

The brochure called for a leader in transportation who can make HART “a best-in-class transit agency." It also referenced challenges the agency faces, such as the future of the sales tax revenue and a 60-percent decrease in ridership during the coronavirus pandemic.

The starting salary was advertised at $200,000 to $250,000.

Here are the eight candidates recommended for consideration by recruiting firm GovHR USA.

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Cleveland Ferguson III. Chief administrative officer, Jacksonville Transportation Authority

Ferguson was a finalist for the position in 2019, but withdrew from consideration. He’s spent five years at Jacksonville’s transit authority. Previously, he worked for the mayor of Jacksonville and taught at Florida Coastal School of Law.

Expected salary: $275,000

Jeffrey B. Hiott. Vice president of technical services and innovation, American Public Transportation Association.

Hiott spent 13 years at the American Public Transportation Association, a non-profit that promotes and studies transit nationwide. In his application letter, he described himself as a data-driven problem solver whose understanding of industry trends will help the Hillsborough agency remain relevant.

Expected salary: $210,000

Henry Ikwut-Ukwa. Director of transportation, Atlanta BeltLine Inc.

Ikwut-Ukwa spent the last four years as the director of transportation at Atlanta BeltLine and worked previously at Atlanta and Birmingham’s transit authorities. He has 20 years of transit experience and drew comparisons in his application letter between Atlanta and Tampa and their sales tax referendums for transportation.

Expected salary: Around $240,000

Bernard Jackson. Senior executive officer of rail operations, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Prior to his time in Los Angeles, Jackson spent 30 years at the Chicago Transit Authority, some of it as a bus driver. He served as a director of both transit and rail operations and said his experience with both would help him make an immediate impact with customer experience, ridership and employee performance.

Expected salary: As advertised

Adelee Marie Le Grand. vice president/executive strategic advisor, Transdev North America

Le Grand has worked at some of the top transportation consulting firms for the past 18 years, including Transdev, AECOM and URS. She said her plan is to emphasize customers, motivate staff and engage stakeholders, especially with the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

Expected salary: As advertised

Ivan Maldonado. Director of transportation operations, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority

Maldonado has been with the agency since 2018 and is the only internal candidate. He spent the last 13 years at transit companies in Polk, Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. The Army veteran said the last two years at HART have enabled him to identify the strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and threats within the agency.

Expected salary: $210,000

James E. Price. Chief transit operations officer, Hampton Roads (Va.) Transit

Price has more than 30 years of transit experience, primarily focused on rail operations. The Army veteran described himself as a collaborative leader with a team-oriented management style. He also highlighted his skills in strategic planning and community engagement.

Expected salary: $215,000

Michael Rogers. Director of transportation, city of Dallas

Rogers was the director of transportation for both Dallas and Raleigh, N.C., and worked in public works in San Antonio, Texas, and Wayne County, Mich. He has experience linking transit to affordable housing and economic development, along with planning for bus rapid transit and commuter rail.

Expected salary: As advertised