Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Tri County/Florida News

Suwannee Valley TA Under Microscope: OIG (Office of the Inspector General) Called In To Investigate

At Monday's meeting Com. Williams was silent about the upcoming OIG audit.

SUWANNEE COUNTY, FL – Yesterday afternoon, the Observer confirmed that on March 6, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) informed Columbia County Commissioner and Chairman of the Suwannee Valley Transit Authority (SVTA), Ronald Williams, the Authority is going under the microscope. The FDOT and the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) Offices of Inspector General (OIG) are initiating an examination of the Authority. During Monday night's SVTA meeting, Chairman Williams did not mention a word about the audit/investigation.

The letter to Chairman Williams from Inspector General Robert E. Clift stated in part, "The books and records of the SVTA will be examined to determine if expenditures, and activities related to those expenditures, are allowable, reasonable and in compliance with applicable laws, rules and regulations."

The complaints against the SVTA have become legion. The SVTA has been late with reports; refused to comply with the public records law of Florida; failed on a promise to deliver some form of public transportation to the three county area it services (Columbia, Hamilton, Suwannee); took on the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council as an enemy; and lobbied, reportedly along with SVTA Chairman Williams, against the appointment of Vietnam Marine combat veteran LJ Johnson as the Rider Representative on the Local Transportation for the Disadvantaged Board.

LJ Johnson, Vietnam Marine Combat Veteran, who still can't talk about his combat time in Da Nang, finally found some relief from the SVTA when Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged (CTD) Executive Director Steve Holmes called off the SVTA.

Six months after he applied for the position, the Planning Council ignoring outside pressure, appointed Mr. LJ Johnson.

After Mr. Johnson began giving out his card to riders and telling them how to make complaints if they thought they were receiving inadequate service, the SVTA stalked him and moved to deny him transportation. Even though the SVTA was informed at a public meeting by ACHA representative Alana McKay that Mr. Johnson met the standards, they continued to try and deny him service.

After the stalking video tapes of Mr. Johnson were viewed by various officials, the common response was that the videotaping was "disgusting."

Former independent transportation provider for the SVTA, Tina Graham, told the Observer that she was coerced by Ms. Pra into settling for a partial payment of money owed to her by the Authority. Ms Graham said, "Ms. Pra told me, if I didn't sign, I wouldn't get anything." When Ms. Graham showed up to state her case at a Columbia County Commission meeting, where Ms. Pra was looking for support, Chairman Williams would not let Ms. Graham speak.

Gwendolyn Pra: No Job Application, Resume, or Contract

Suwannee County Com. Jason Bashaw has been a long time supporter of Ms. Pra.

The Executive Director of the SVTA, Gwendolyn Pra, was hired after she retired from Florida's Department of Transportation. A records request by the Observer for Ms. Pra's resume and job application came back with the answer that none existed at the Authority.

Ms. Pra was hired by Ronald Williams and the SVTA Board on July 27, 2011, and accepted employment on July 30, 2011. Her starting salary was $70,000 for a 6 month probationary period, then $75,000 thereafter. According to the SVTA Memorandum, which is the only document produced showing she was hired, "The position offer includes a full range of benefits, including continuation of your Fla Retirement Service contribution." Ms. Pra also was offered an SVTA vehicle to commute to work from Lake City to Live Oak, the location of SVTA headquarters.

There was no specific mention of overtime, comp time, or any rules – regulations or personnel policy manual.

A former SVTA employee, speaking under the condition of anonymity, said that he remembers a Personnel Policy Manual that had been there for "about 20 years, before Mr. Steele came in and picked it up and replaced it." When asked if a section in the old manual mentioned anything about comp time for exempted employees, the Observer was told, "I don't remember that [Section E - Exempted Employees] being there. It was added in the new manual."

On Feb. 27th, Ms. Pra (left) and another SVTA employee sat for 3 hours at a Columbia County Budget Work Shop where the SVTA was not on the agenda.

The new SVTA Personnel Rules and Regulations Manual was adopted by the SVTA Board on March 26, 2012, after the hiring of Administrator Pra and Operations Director Bill Steele, both of whom received comp time before the new manual was approved.

The March 26, 2012 Manual, in Section 6.4, Overtime Pay/Compensatory Time, (E) "Exempted Personnel" states: "In no event will overtime be paid to supervisors or professional personnel, except as allowed in Section 6.4D [holiday work] or authorized by Administrator."

A Sudden Undocumented Change In Policy?

This past Monday evening, March 10, 2014, the SVTA provided its Board members what it purported to be a page from its Personnel Rules and Regulations.

"Exempted Personnel", section (E) now stated: "a) in general, employees considered as supervisors or professional personnel (Exempt) will not be authorized "over-time pay", except as allowed in Section 6.4D or authorized by administrator."

Then a new section was added. There is no amendment date or any indication of how, when or why this occurred. It states: "As deemed appropriate by the Administrator, Exempted Personnel MAY request to 'cash in' amounts of overtime if mission and/or work requirements dictate and do not allow the use of compensation time to be used in a timely manner."

Comp time accumulated at breakneck speed for Administrator Pra:
From 10/08/2011 - 10/21/2011: 80 hrs.
From 12/09/2011 - 12/22/2011: 125 hrs. From 12/17/2011 - 12/30/2011:  80 hrs.  From 12/31/2011 - 01/13/2012:  80 hrs.
From 02/26/2012 – 03/10/2012:  80 hrs.
and the compensatory rate had gone up 7% to $36.06 hr.

Records obtained by the Observer show that Ms. Pra was earning just about as much in comp time pay as she was earning in her salary.

In June of 2013, Ms. Pra was directed by Circuit Court Judge Fina to turn over all records calculating the amount of comp time for herself and Operations Director, Bill Steele. No records were provided which showed any calculations of comp time from the time Ms. Pra was hired, other than an illegally redacted spread sheet.

It is not clear from any record how Ms. Pra was able to cash out her comp time, or who authorized it prior to last Monday night, when the purported new wording of the Personnel Manual was revealed. In effect, Ms. Pra gave herself overtime.

The Personnel Rules and Regulations Manual does not grant employees the authority to “cash out” annual leave. The Administrator “cashed out” annual leave as well. It is unknown who authorized Ms. Pra to cash out her annual leave.

There is no non interference policy at the SVTA prohibiting Board members from interfering in the day to day business of the Authority. It is clear from conversations that Chairman Williams, the long time Columbia County Commissioner and SVTA Chairman, took an active role in the day to day affairs of the Authority.

Suwannee County Commissioner, Jason Bashaw, Priaises Ms. Pra and Mr. Steele

At Monday night's SVTA meeting, Suwannee County Commissioner Jason Bashaw, who was a proponent of Gwendolyn Pra before he was elected in 2012, praised her again.

At Monday night's SVTA meeting, Chairman Williams said, "When Suwannee Valley Transit was going through cryin' time this Board authorized them to work as many hours as possible to bring Suwannee Valley Transit where you heard commissioners speak on the confidence that he have in Suwannee Valley Transit now. So we done that. They've done a great job doin' that, so the comp time ceases."

It is not clear at what meeting the SVTA Board authorized comp time for its exempt employees.

Richard Powell, a legendary auditor in North Central Florida, was hired to do the FY2012 and FY2013 SVTA audits.

It is not clear if in 2012, he found that there were any improprieties with the SVTA accounting practices. During that time, it is estimated that Ms. Pra and Operations Manager Steele accumulated 907 hrs and 1541 hrs respectively in compensatory time, thus jacking up their pensions.

For the FY2013 audit, Powell recommended that the SVTA Chairman or a Suwannee County Commissioner approve comp time for Ms. Pra. It is not clear how he came up with this determination and did not answer an email for an explanation regarding this or the 2012 audit.


With public confidence in government at an all time low and with Florida a perennial leader in the national list of corrupt politicians, it is now up to the OIG to sort through this mess.

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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Related Links:

• I Had The Displeasure of Having To Ride SVTA
(Posted August 27, 2014)

Former Suwannee Valley TA Operations Director: Team SVTA Accomplished Its Mission
(Posted August 25, 2014)

Suwannee Valley TA: In Disarray Since 2011, The SVTA Remains Severely Challenged
(Posted August 19, 2014)

Suwannee Valley TA: Dialysis Patients Riding On Saturday for Another Month
(Posted May 14, 2014)

FOILED – A Plan to Depose the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council and Replace it With the SVTA
(Posted May 1, 2014)

Suwannee Valley Transit Authority:
Here They Go Again - Good Government, What's That?

(Posted April 30, 2014)

• Administrator and Director of Operations Resign
(Posted April 24, 2014)

Suwannee Valley TA Under Microscope: OIG (Office of the Inspector General) Called In To Investigate
(Posted March 13, 2014)

Transit Authority Moves Into 21st Century Commissioner Nash Says, "No Mas" to Secrecy
(Posted March 11, 2014)

Governing Bd Meets in Locked Building. Safety Issues Kept Under Lock and Key
(Posted November 6, 2013)

Suwannee Valley Transit Authority Grievance Committee: Other Complaints & Retaliation (Posted Sept 30, 2013)  (Part II)

Suwannee Valley Transit Authority Grievance Committee Meets: Complaints Upheld - Rider's Representative Retaliated Against
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• In 2014 it is estimated that 40% of the tri county SVTA population will be eligible for Transportation for the Disadvantaged.
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Operations Manager Gets 13% Pay Raise
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(Posted July 11, 2013)

Suwannee Valley Transit Authority (SVTA): Florida's Sunshine Laws - What's that?
(Posted April 23, 2012)

 • Suwannee Valley Transit Authority (SVTA) Train Wreck Continues: Accounting still questionable - Vendors still not being paid
(Posted March 27, 2012)

Dist V Com Scarlet Frasina Breaks Tie: Puts residents on hook for $300,000 loan to Suwannee Valley Transit Authority. Collateral – what's that?
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 • Suwannee Valley Transit Authority:
A train wreck working to get transportation for the disadvantaged back on track

(Posted January 31, 2011)