TAMPA — It seems Hillsborough County’s Public Transportation Commission can’t go two weeks without some sort of trouble.
On Wednesday, the focus was on County Commissioner Les Miller, who abruptly resigned from the transportation commission in the middle of a meeting.
Miller said he was fed up with what he called a roughshod abuse of customary meeting protocols by commission Chairman Victor Crist. A stickler for Roberts Rules of Order, Miller said Crist was making up the rules as he went along.
“He can’t seem to rein it in,” Miller said after the meeting.
The problem, according to Miller, started at last month’s meeting when Crist announced he was negotiating a contract with Cesar Padilla, then the agency’s executive director. Padilla had been leading the agency without a contract since 2007, making $107,000 a year.
At that August meeting, Miller complained that the board had not authorized Crist to negotiate with Padilla. Crist countered that, though no formal vote was taken, the board was aware of his private discussions with Padilla.
“There was not a vote, but the lawyers told me I was fully within my rights to sit down and put down a proposal for the board to talk about,” Crist said.
But the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” Miller said, occurred at Wednesday’s meeting when Crist attempted to schedule a discussion on a divisive ambulance service matter that was added to the agenda late Tuesday afternoon. The new agenda was supposed to have been emailed to PTC members, but none had seen it.
Crist thought he could fix everything by having the board vote to accept the agenda, then act on the ambulance issue. Miller objected, saying Crist didn’t have the right to call for a vote to accept an agenda item that none of the members had seen before they walked into the meeting.
Crist said he was calling a vote because he was the chairman.
Miller told a reporter afterward what he was thinking at the time:
“Mr. Chairman, you’re not following the rules.
“You say you’re doing this because you’re chairman, but the chair conducts meetings. He does not dictate what’s going to happen.”
Crist countered that board members can make motions on any issue. In this case, Crist said he was suggesting that someone on the commission make a motion to adopt the agenda because there were late additions that members had not seen.
“The bottom line is, if there is a changed agenda and a board member offers up a motion to accept the changes and there’s a second, then the board can vote to accept it,” Crist said.
The ambulance item was taken off the agenda and rescheduled for next month.
Miller’s resignation was just the latest trouble for the Public Transportation Commission, a little agency with a big image problem. Just two weeks ago, Padilla resigned under pressure after it was disclosed he was moonlighting on county time as a security guard for an auction.
At about the same time, the owner of a limousine company and some of his customers sued the transportation commission with the help from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that represents small businesses in fights with government regulators. The lawsuit accuses the commission of violating limo operators’ rights under the Florida constitution by mandating they charge a minimum $50 fare no matter how short the trip.
The developments renewed calls by some state legislators and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn to consider eliminating the commission, which was created by the state Legislature and is the only agency of its kind in Florida.
The commission is also under fire from the tea party, whose Tampa founder, Sharon Calvert, video recorded the meeting Wednesday. Calvert got up during the public comment portion and repeated a frequently heard charge that the agency was responsible for the rapid-response car company Uber locating in Jacksonville instead of Tampa.
“We don’t need the heavy hand of the PTC that picks winners and losers and stifles competition,” Calvert said.
Crist has defended the agency, saying it needs reform, not elimination. On Thursday, the board backed his request that the county’s internal auditor begin an investigation of whether the commission needs new rules and procedures that will protect it from elimination by state lawmakers.
The commission also voted to hire Kevin Jackson, who heads the county’s consumer protection department, as interim director while an ad hoc committee of transportation commission members searches for a permanent leader.
The commission regulates vehicles for-hire including taxicabs, limousines, vans, basic life support ambulances and wrecker services. Its members include representatives from the Hillsborough County Commission and the city councils of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.
Miller and Crist, who served together for years in the Florida House and state Senate, both said they hoped Wednesday’s dustup won’t affect their relationship on the county commission. After Miller resigned and left the meeting, Crist said he had hoped to name his long-time colleague to lead the committee that will search for a new director.
“I think Miller is a hard-working, dedicated and effective county commissioner, and I consider him a colleague and a friend,” Crist said after the meeting. “We’ve had differences in the past and resolved them.”