Four finalists chosen in search for next leader of Hillsborough’s transit agency

Deputy chief of transportation Ruthie Reyes Burckard will serve as interim chief executive for the remainder of the search
Bus riders get off a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus at the University Area Transit Centerl on June 19, 2019, in Tampa.
Bus riders get off a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus at the University Area Transit Centerl on June 19, 2019, in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times (2019) ]
Published Oct. 14, 2020|Updated Oct. 15, 2020

TAMPA — Four finalists will vie to lead Hillsborough’s transit agency after the board narrowed a list of candidates from eight Wednesday.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board plans to schedule one-on-one interviews with each applicant before asking them to appear virtually at a board meeting on Nov. 2.

The finalists for the agency’s chief executive office are Henry Ikwut-Ukwa of Atlanta BeltLine, Bernard Jackson of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Adelee Marie Le Grand of Transdev North America and James E. Price of Hampton Roads Transit in Virginia.

This is HART’s second national chief executive search in as many years. The last leader, Ben Limmer, resigned in March after an investigation into purchasing and vendor relations. Limmer was on the job for less than a year.

Carolyn House Stewart, the agency’s head of risk and legal, had served as the interim chief of the agency since Limmer was placed on leave in November. She resigned last month without a written reason. The transit board appointed deputy chief of transportation Ruthie Reyes Burckard Wednesday to serve as interim chief executive while continuing the national search.

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

Les Miller, transit authority chair at the time, had proposed this summer hiring Stewart as permanent chief but his motion failed to win the support of the board. Instead, board members decided to launch a national search for a new executive. More than 160 people applied for the position.

Recruiting firm GovHR USA narrowed that list to eight candidates for consideration. The search firm briefed the transit authority board on those candidates Wednesday afternoon, highlighting their experience, previous roles, strengths and challenges.

Ikwut-Ukwa was described as a well-rounded and experienced candidate who also has experience with transportation referenda. HART is poised to nearly double its budget if the Florida Supreme Court upholds a one-cent transportation sales tax voters approved in 2018.

Ikwut-Ukwa also worked at the transit authority in Birmingham, Ala., which GovHR USA Senior Vice President Charlene Stevens described as a similar sized agency to HART.

Jackson stated his 30-year transit career as a bus driver in Chicago and now serves as the senior executive officer of rail operations in Los Angeles. Smith said Jackson has a powerful story and complimented his broad range of experience. Board members Rich McClain and Pat Kemp also praised him as a well-rounded candidate.

Le Grand in her GovHR interview said transit can be “life changing and life supporting," a phrase that multiple board members appreciated. She has spent her career as a consultant, as opposed to working for a public agency, which Kemp and board member David Mechanik said could be a challenge.

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Price was described as a big-picture leader with extensive experience in both bus and rail operations. He is currently the second-in-command at Hampton Roads Transit in Virginia, a similar-sized agency that’s forced to operate without financial reserves.

The four finalists quickly emerged as the board’s top candidates. Nearly every board member present at the virtual meeting named Ikwut-Ukwa, Jackson, Le Grand and Price as their top choices.

The chief executive salary is advertised between $200,000 and $250,000.

Related: HART's interim chief Carolyn House Stewart steps down

“This is much easier than I thought this was going to be, because those would be my four as well," board chair Mariella Smith said. “I really am optimistic and hopeful, especially seeing all the agreement on this board today....whoever does emerge from this is going to come in with broad board support.”

The board also was unanimous in its selection of Burckard to fill the interim role until the board settles on a new chief executive.

Burckard started her 30-year transit career as a bus driver in New York City in 1990. She has spent the last 20 years with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

“I still consider my experience behind the wheel as a guiding factor in my day-to-day decisions,” Burckard said. “For what will be a short time in HART’s history, I look forward to strengthening the agency.”

The board could choose a new chief executive as early as Nov. 2 at its next board meeting. The four finalists are expected to give brief presentations before the full board followed by more discussion and a potential vote.