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Board member steps down

By MIKE BRASSFIELD
Published April 7, 2007


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TAMPA - Bob Clark Jr., a lightning rod for much of the controversy surrounding the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, resigned Friday.

The board member's resignation came a day after Gov. Charlie Crist said he was ready to clean house and that he supported a bill that would allow him to replace most of the agency's board this July.

Friday morning, the agency's general counsel made it clear to Clark that it was time to go.

Both supporters and critics of the Expressway Authority said they hoped Clark's departure might help the once-obscure agency leave behind months of turmoil and return to the humdrum but vital business of building and operating toll roads.

"I think this was a smart move on Mr. Clark's part, and in the best interest of the Authority," said Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, the agency's most outspoken critic.

The state senator has been pushing a bill that would allow four out of seven board members to be replaced. But now he may withdraw it, because with Clark's resignation the governor soon will be able to appoint three board members anyway.

Clark came under fire this week when it was revealed that his Tampa steel company bid for work from one of the agency's main contractors while Clark was on the board.

That contradicted what the Expressway Authority had told Sen. Crist, and prompted the senator as well as the road agency's general counsel - its chief lawyer - to publicly criticize Clark. General counsel Rhea Law talked Clark into resigning Friday.

"The general counsel does not have the authority to ask a board member to resign," said agency spokeswoman Honey Rand. "Rhea Law called him this morning not as the general counsel for the Expressway Authority, but as someone who has lived in this community for a long time. She pointed out that this was hurting the Expressway Authority."

* * *

Clark, a 68-year-old steel magnate, is a colorful character who is on several civic boards. Every Friday he hosts a lunch at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. Some of Tampa's most powerful people have attended.

Clark was there again Friday, sitting with others at a corner table. "I've already submitted my resignation. I have nothing to say," he said.

The Expressway Authority operates the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. Its unpaid board consists of four gubernatorial appointees like Clark; a Tampa City Council member and a Hillsborough County commissioner; and the state Transportation Department's regional director.

Clark joined the board in February 2003 - a month after his company won a $366,000 job supplying steel girders to PCL, a contractor building the Crosstown's new reversible lanes.

Clark acknowledged this week that his company later bid for more work with PCL. That came as a surprise to Expressway Authority officials.

Clark has been intertwined in the agency's recent series of controversies.

It started last August with the board's surprise vote to fire the agency's previous legal counsel, Steve Anderson, who had raised ethical concerns about Clark's business dealings.

The Times revealed that the agency's then-executive director, Ralph Mervine, spent more than three hours on his cell phone talking with Clark and four other board members - Thomas Gibbs, James Hargrett, Alba Lopez-Isa and Don Skelton - the weekend before the vote to get rid of Anderson.

Board members denied talking about the coming vote. But the board's two elected officials, who hadn't been called, said the pattern of calls suggested the vote had been fixed, a violation of Florida's Open Meetings Law.

The vote plunged the Expressway Authority into a political fire storm - two state investigations, an FBI probe, and auditors pointing out financial mismanagement.

* * *

Many of those involved in the agency's controversies are no longer there.

Mervine quit amid revelations about ties to a gay porn business.

Lobbyist John Beck was fired.

Of the board members, Gibbs' term expired. Clark just resigned. Lopez-Isa's term expires in July, and she hasn't decided whether to apply to be reappointed.

Lawmakers who are critical of the agency have been vocal in their support of Hargrett, a former state senator who is now the board chairman.

But only one person, former legislator Sandy Murman, has applied for Gibbs' seat - an unusually low number.

"Normally there'd be a line of people," Sen. Crist said.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at (813) 226-3435.

[Last modified April 7, 2007, 01:42:59]


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