Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has left the board overseeing public transit in Hillsborough County, a position she has held since winning her 2019 election and vowed to “fight for every neighborhood to have the dependable bus system they deserve.”
Her departure comes as the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority faces a renewed spotlight for its impending fiscal cliff, threadbare service and a revolving door of senior staff. State lawmakers recently passed legislation requiring the Florida Department of Transportation to study the agency’s management structure in an effort to improve efficiency and service.
Castor picked recently elected City Council member Gwendolyn “Gwen” Henderson for the four-year board seat.
“This is a critical time for our public transit agency, and I appreciate your service to the riders of HART and the entire community,” Castor wrote to Henderson in a letter dated May 3 reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times.
Henderson, an educator and political newcomer, said it was too soon to say what her priorities will be as a board member but stressed the need to ensure “stability and longevity” at the agency.
One of Castor’s last acts as a board member was to support a settlement agreement for former CEO Adelee Le Grand, who stepped down earlier this month after a 2½-year tenure at the agency that culminated in a monthslong investigation into her leadership.
“A focus for us has got to be: How are we going to attract the right person so we won’t repeat this cycle?” Henderson told the Times on Tuesday, referencing the agency’s recent turbulence.
When reached by phone, city communications director Adam Smith said the mayor is in Qatar and that he “didn’t know much about” her decision to leave the board.
Smith provided the following statement from the mayor: “As HART begins writing its next chapter, Councilwoman Henderson will bring a new perspective to its board of directors as the representative of Tampa’s urban neighborhoods including downtown, east Tampa and the heights. HART plays a critical role in connecting people to jobs and neighborhoods to each other, and it is so important that its service be expanded and improved for the riders that depend on transit everyday.”
Castor often voices reliable and convenient public transportation as a central policy platform. She began her first full week on the job as mayor in 2019 by attending a HART board meeting, bucking the trend of her predecessor. Former Mayor Bob Buckhorn had appointed City Council member Mike Suarez to the board, instead of serving himself.
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As of Tuesday afternoon, Castor’s image was still featured on the agency’s website as a board member.
Hillsborough County Commissioner and HART board member Joshua Wostal said he welcomed Castor’s departure, but believes it was “a shameful display of cowardice that she did not accept accountability for her direct role in leading this critical public institution into financial turmoil.”
The agency’s operating costs exceed and are growing at a faster rate than operating revenue, according to InfraStrategies, a management consulting firm hired to conduct a deep dive into the transit agency’s financial strategy.
Henderson grew up in Carver City, riding the bus and aware of the different levels of accessibility and mobility offered to different neighborhoods.
As teenagers, she and her sister got jobs with the city of Tampa. One of her sister’s assignments was to count the cracks on the Bayshore Boulevard sidewalks in South Tampa. Their own neighborhood didn’t have sidewalks, much less the funds to fix them.
In March, she won the District 5 seat by 80 votes, representing East Tampa, Ybor City, downtown and part of West Tampa — the only district with a majority of minority residents.
She joins three other Tampa representatives on HART’s 12-person board: lawyer Tyler Hudson, communications vice president Melanie Williams and City Council member Luis Viera.
“We sincerely thank Mayor Castor for her four years of dedicated service and leadership on the HART board. We all also welcome Councilwoman Henderson on our HART board,” Viera, who is the board’s chairperson, told the Times. “This is a pivotal time for HART.”
There are currently two vacant seats on the board as both state of Florida representatives remain unfilled.