tampabay.com

Leftover board uses clout

Is the Florida toll road plan dead? That may depend on a very quiet state panel.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published May 26, 2007


Few regular folks have heard of the Florida Transportation Commission. The nine volunteers on its board aren't elected. They don't keep minutes of key meetings.

It's an anonymity that conceals their power to shape how the state spends billions in tax dollars on roads, rail, airports and seaports.

For more than a year, a Transportation Commission board appointed by Jeb Bush when he was governor has been a key sponsor of a controversial plan to lace the state with a series of massive toll roads.

And earlier this year, the board violated Florida's open meetings law when it led a search for the person who could help decide the fate of those toll roads, the secretary of the state Department of Transportation.

The commission is required by law to nominate three finalists for transportation secretary. The governor has no choice but to pick one of its nominations.

During meetings in February and March, board members interviewed candidates. After each applicant left, members discussed their impressions.

But the public may never know what questions were asked, how the candidates answered, what board members said about the applicants, or whether the toll roads were an important factor.

No minutes, transcripts, video or audio exist of the interviews, said the commission's executive director, Sally Patrenos.

"It was a publicly noticed meeting," Patrenos said. "Everyone out there had an opportunity to show up."

Expecting the public to show is no excuse for not taking minutes of a meeting, which is a violation of the open meetings law, said Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation.

"The whole purpose of the state's Sunshine Law is to provide the public a chance to participate," Harper said. "Most people have jobs and can't attend the meetings. That's why minutes are taken."

State law requires that minutes, or summaries, of a board or commission meeting of any state agency shall be "promptly recorded ... and open to public inspection."

After being told about the lack of minutes, Pat Gleason, Crist's special counsel for open government, asked the state Attorney General's Office to investigate. She said the commission can remedy the violation by going back to compile the minutes.

On Friday, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill McCollum said the commission had been told by an assistant attorney general to "re-create" minutes from personal notes of the February and March interviews.

"Our office is working to ensure the minutes will accurately reflect the meetings," said Sandi Copes, the spokeswoman

The commission's vice chairwoman, Janet Watermeier, said board members had relied on the staff for advice on Sunshine Law requirements.

"Hopefully, our staff is doing things in the way that they're supposed to be done," she said.

But without summaries, it's unclear how the Florida Transportation Commission went about selecting finalists for the top Transportation Department job.

Cut were some with more experience than whom Crist eventually picked: Stephanie Kopelousos, a 37-year-old who has been an aide and legislative analyst for government officials and agencies, including the Transportation Department.

Watermeier said support for the toll roads wasn't a condition to make the final list.

"We were looking for qualified candidates," she said.

Kopelousos said board members did indeed ask her about the toll road projects. Her response, she said, stressed her belief that Crist wanted to expand existing roads, not to create ones like the toll road plan, called Future Corridors, envisions.

"But I don't remember the line of questioning," she said.

Designed as a buffer

The Transportation Commission wasn't intended to be inscrutable. Lawmakers actually created it in 1987 to provide more public accountability of the Transportation Department.

Lawmakers wanted a buffer between the governor and the transportation secretary so that politics didn't taint the hiring process.

In January, Crist inherited a board appointed by his predecessor.

Why does it matter who sits on this board?

Because the commission also reviews the agency's $9-billion budget, and recommends major transportation policies.

Under Bush, the commission and his transportation secretary, Denver Stutler, aggressively pushed Future Corridors, a project that proposes more than 1,000 miles of toll roads to criss-cross rural Florida.

In March, the St. Petersburg Times reported that one of those corridors, the Heartland Parkway, was earmarked for land owned by companies controlled by state Sen. J.D. Alexander and his cousin, Rep. Baxter Troutman. Alexander helped form a group that is lobbying for the road.

A day after the story ran, Crist told the Times the state instead needs to expand existing roads. His secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, Tom Pelham, has said Future Corridors is the wrong approach.

Crist, however, has yet to rescind a Future Corridors "action plan" put forth by the commission and Stutler, the previous transportation secretary.

To some, that means the project is still in play, said Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida.

"It's almost June," Lee said. "Until the governor issues a document that repudiates or rescinds the Stutler plan, Future Corridors is alive and well."

Lee said the commission's role in selecting a transportation boss has led to some disconnect within Crist's administration.

"To what degree can a strong governor control his secretary of transportation when that person reports to both the FTC and the governor?" Lee said.

The commission's Watermeier said there should be no confusion: Kopelousos works for Crist.

"She doesn't work for the commission, we don't direct her," Watermeier said.

Since 2005, Kopelousos was the Transportation Department's chief of staff under Stutler, a position that had her promote Future Corridors.

Kopelousos said she has yet to speak to Crist or his staff about that project. Until told otherwise, she said the plan will continue as a priority, but added Crist has stressed a shift to road networks in urban areas.

Crist and his staff didn't return phone calls for comment.

His office did fax a statement:

"Governor Crist is committed to reducing traffic congestion facing Floridians on current corridors in our state. His priority is working with the Florida DOT to alleviate the daily congestion on Florida's major roadways."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

 

Who is the Florida Transportation Commission?
Its nine members, appointed by the governor, must have private sector managerial experience. They provide general policy recommendations to the Transportation Department. The board must represent all areas of Florida. The board has one vacancy. All were appointed by Jeb Bush.