CEO candidate bails from Hillsborough transit agency’s ‘dysfunctional’ search

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One of three candidates is out.

A candidate for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority CEO has withdrawn his name from consideration after what was described as a dysfunctional meeting last week.

Cleveland Ferguson, the Senior Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority is no longer seeking the transit agency’s top job.

Ferguson’s decision came after an emergency meeting last Friday responding to criticism that the HART Board of Directors was not considering strong enough candidates. Concerns rolled in from various people through letters to the editor to the Tampa Bay Times and from the Tampa Bay Partnership that, while the candidates were all strong enough to lead HART as it is today, they might not be experienced enough to guide the agency into its next chapter as it prepares to nearly double its operating budget within the next year.

Board members spent an hour and a half discussing whether they should expand the CEO search.

“After Friday’s meeting and board dialogue it is evident that I should redirect my attention to the very clear transportation vision and mission here in Northeast Florida,” Ferguson wrote in a letter announcing his intent.

Ferguson had already been considering bowing out, according to Hillsborough County Commissioner and HART Board Chair Les Miller.

“He said to the consultant that he was concerned he wouldn’t have the support of the business community,” Miller said.

Miller said Ferguson called the consultant hired to oversee the CEO search after Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Rick Homans sent a letter to the HART Board encouraging them to expand their search and to not “settle” on a candidate.

“That letter Rick Homans sent was not a good move,” Miller said.

He’s worried the ongoing debate over how HART should handle its search is driving candidates away. Miller said talent searches for leadership positions in public agencies is already difficult enough in Florida. Because of the state’s robust transparency rules under the Sunshine Law, candidates who apply don’t have the cover of anonymity.

“If you have a job in California and you apply here, because of Florida’s Sunshine Laws, your boss knows you’re looking for another job,” Miller said.

Kathleen Shanahan saw the writing on the wall after Friday’s discussion.

“I really hope that if you’re listening out there you understand what Tampa needs and you fight for this position beyond the dysfunction you just heard,” Shanahan said Friday.

Her comment came after board members tried to convince Jeff Seward, the agency’s interim CEO, to throw his name into the hat for CEO. When he declined, Miller asked him if he’d consider the position if it were offered to him immediately. Seward said he’d have to consult his wife, if that were the case.

Ferguson was listening and, it seems, didn’t heed Shanahan’s plea to stick it out.

Now HART is left with just two candidates to consider — Carrie Osborne and Benjamin Limmer.

Osborne manages the Lexington, Kentucky transit agency Lextran as its General Manager. She oversees a $26 million budget, which is just 12 percent what HART’s budget will be once it begins receiving the additional $130 million from the 1 percent sales tax voters approved in November.

Limmer is the Assistant General Manager for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, which puts him as the No. 2 at the nation’s ninth largest transit agency.

Both candidates are in town Thursday and Friday meeting with HART board members. They’ll publicly interview Friday during a board meeting.

Janelle Irwin Taylor

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at [email protected]



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