Katharine Eagan will replace HART CEO Phillip Hale on an interim basis beginning May 2. The Hillsborough County transit agency board voted unanimously today for Eagan to succeed Hale, who announced at the board's monthly meeting in February that he would be stepping down in 90 days.
Eagan has been with HART since 2009, when she was hired as Chief of Service Development at the agency, and moved up to Chief Operating Officer in 2011. In September of 2012 she was named by Mass Transit magazine as one of the Top 40 under 40 professionals who have made significant contributions to public transit.
It might be some time, however, before the agency chooses a permanent successor to Hale, who was initially chosen on an interim basis to succeed David Armijo three years ago before being named as the board's full-tme choice. There has been considerable speculation that the agency's role will expand in the future, depending on what comes out of the transportation policy group that includes county commissioners and the mayors of Hillsborough’s three cities that have been meeting over the past year.
That's why no one on the board expressed unease with going to an interim head for now. Board member Dr. Steven Polzin said that the policy group's recommendations could ultimately see HART expanding "two to three times, maybe four times as big as it is today at least in terms of resources." That group is expected to reach its conclusions this fall.
Board members then discussed whether it would better to hold an internal search or hire a firm to do a national search for the new CEO. Some members said a national search could be helpful in avoiding candidates being publicly floated in their own local media, but board member Fran Davin strongly disagreed, saying that information was inevitably going to leak out. The board will vote next month on which way to go. HART chair and Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez quipped that he was okay either way as long as the board didn't hire the firm responsible for selecting USF's basketball coach (that firm failed to unearth the fact that the program's first choice as its new coach, Manhattan's Steve Masiello, had lied on his resume when he said he had graduated from the University of Kentucky when he had not).
Phillip Hale was always the "accidental CEO," a man in the right place at the right time when controversy engulfed the HART board in the spring of 2011. That's when then HART CEO David Armijo was fired by the HART board following a special whistleblower investigation that revealed he had misused taxpayer money for trips, made improper hires, retaliated against employees for complaining, and created a hostile work environment.
Hale was chief of maintenance and facilities at the time, but was already running the agency on an interim basis as the board had suspended Armijo for a number of weeks before voting to fire him. (Armijo did land on his feet. He now serves as general manager for A-C Transit, the bus service that operates on the East side of the San Francisco Bay Area.)
"I've been greatly impressed by everything you've done here," Suarez said to Hale. "There were a lot of people who were angry at HART before you took over. A lot of people who didn't want to do business with us. A lot of people who really, really thought we were in disarray, and that we didn't know how to get anything done. You've proven, based on your performance the last three years, that we definitely know how to get things done."
Suarez then handed a framed proclamation to Hale, championing him for various accomplishments the agency has enjoyed the past three years, such as spearheading the agency's first foray into bus rapid transit with its north-south MetroRapid line.
"I really didn't know what I was getting into, to be honest with you," Hale admitted upon receiving the proclamation. The Texas native's future is somewhat mysterious, as he originally told board members that he was leaving to help out a family business, though no one is quite sure what that is and Hale refused to talk about it when asked by CL about it in February.
But it was obvious that he hasn't forgotten some of the criticism he's received since leading HART. "It's been enjoyable, but also at the same time it's been pretty painful," he said. He praised the work ethic of his thinly stretched staff, a reflection of the diminished revenues that have dictated budget cuts in recent years.
"But there sure are a lot of chiefs out there," he continued. "And everybody's got an idea. But to be honest with you, everybody that has these ideas...in my personal experience, does not have a clue about public transportation. Some of these ideas are really bizarre."
He also said that public transportation in Hillsborough County is an integral part for the minority and low-income community. "They could not get to where they need to go without HART. And sometimes that's lost."