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  1. Opinion

The HART CEO is fired. The transportation tax is in jeopardy. It’s a bad week for transit in Tampa Bay. | Editorial

With a leadership vacuum and a tax in doubt, government and business leaders have to continue to push for solutions to our traffic problems.
Only one member of the board voted against the motion Friday to fire Ben Limmer, chief executive of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON | CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Times]

This has been a terrible week for Tampa Bay residents tired of being stuck in traffic. Board members for Hillsborough County’s transit agency had no choice but to fire the embattled CEO Friday for violating a series of policies. Two days earlier, the Florida Supreme Court sounded skeptical about upholding Hillsborough’s 1-cent sales tax for transportation improvements. These are potentially serious setbacks to efforts to meet the region’s biggest challenge, but government and business leaders have to keep moving forward toward easing traffic congestion by adding transit options.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board fired CEO Ben Limmer with cause after an outside investigation found he had violated agency policies in eight instances, including dealing inappropriately with vendors and misusing his spending and management authority. Limmer apologized, insisted his mistakes were not intentional or self-enriching and promised to work going forward to regain the agency’s trust. But he would have been damaged goods, and the board was right to move on.

Though the HART board unanimously selected Limmer almost exactly a year ago after a national search, the promise he brought from his rich transit experience in major cities across the nation quickly faded amid a host of misjudgments. In the end, Limmer lost the confidence of a board comprised heavily of elected officials, who sent the right message - to Limmer and every counterpart - that public trust carries the need for accountability. However damaging the episode, the whistleblower performed a valuable service and the board deserves credit for its careful handling of the complaint.

In a larger sense, though, Limmer’s departure is a second major setback for transportation in a week, coming only days after the Florida Supreme Court cast a jaundiced eye to Hillsborough’s new local transportation tax. The court heard arguments Wednesday in a legal challenge seeking to overturn the tax as unconstitutional. By their line of questioning, several justices seem prepared to invalidate the 2018 transportation referendum, which would rob Hillsborough of a major new funding source for road and mass transit projects.

That timing wasn’t lost Friday on HART, as board members looked beyond Limmer’s fate in urging a new era of openness and leadership. “We have to get this agency back on track,” said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who joined the 11-1 majority in firing Limmer. Several other board members agreed, noting that improving morale and transparency were key to rehabilitating the agency’s image.

Limmer’s firing and the tax’s uncertain legal fate may complicate HART’s task of locating a new chief executive. Local leaders need to tamp down the uncertainty of the past week by recommitting to the same bold vision for transportation that rallied voters countywide in 2018. For HART, that means finding a leader who can morph a mediocre bus service into a truly functional mass transit system for Florida’s third-largest metro. For county commissioners and the mayor, that means working with transit activists and the business community to prepare another transportation tax for the November ballot if the Supreme Court finds the existing one unconstitutional.

Nobody wants to see the gains this community has made in transportation in just the past two years evaporate overnight. And there is so much more to accomplish to make a significant difference. This is a bad week for Tampa Bay transit, but remaining stuck in traffic is not a viable option.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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