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SVTA Attorney: "A confusing time. I don't think anybody really knew what was being approved."

Posted January 21, 2015  09:35 am | Part I |Part II

COLUMBIA - HAMILTON - SUWANNEE COUNTY, FL – The saga of the Suwannee Valley TA continued this past Friday, as two Commissioners from each of the three counties serviced by the Transit Authority met for the second time to come up with an answer to the Florida DOT's OIG (Office of the Investigator General) Report (the Report). After an hour of conversation the commissioners agreed to plead nolo contendere and accept the report and its findings unopposed with an answer which represented a mini Corrective Action Plan.

Columbia, Hamilton, Suwannee: Great Challenges

Links:
More SVTA articles

Since 1999, Columbia, Hamilton, and Suwannee Counties have been designated as Rural Areas of Critical Economic Concern (RACEC). RACEC's were created by Governor Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature. The conditions in these areas are: areas of persistent poverty; lowest educational achievement; low household income; depressed economic activity; high unemployment/underemployment; lack of business competitiveness; and difficulty in attracting new business/jobs.

Florida's Legislative Wizards

In the last legislative session, the wizards in the Florida legislature, backed by Governor Scott, changed the name of RACEC (Rural Areas of Critical Economic Concern) communities to RAO's: Rural Areas of Opportunity. The Florida Association of Counties was against this. The Florida League of Cities was in favor.

January 16, 2014: The SVTA Board Meets

At 1 o'clock, the new chairman of the SVTA, Suwannee County's Jason Bashaw, called the meeting to order. Suwannee County's Larry Sessions appeared by phone; Columbia County's, county commissioner, Bucky Nash was arriving from another meeting and was a few minutes late.

Chairman Bashaw told the Board, "The Attorney and the Administrator have drafted a response and  you guys have it in front of you. I'm going to give you about five minutes to review it. Make some notes and we will wait on Commissioner Nash."

Mr. Bashaw read the response into the record; Mr. Nash arrived; the conversation began.

Board member Beth Burnam of Hamilton County told the Board, "I think it does a good job of effectively addressing everything. If they [OIG] have more questions they can get back with us."

Long time Board Attorney Hal Airth, added, "It doesn't specifically state that we accept their findings, but we don't dispute any of their findings. We just say, 'You have this finding. This is what we've done to address that concern.'"

Ms. Burnam followed up, "The people here did a wonderful job in the packet that they had prepared for us... in disputing some of the things that the OIG did say. I like the fact that we are not just saying, 'We agree with their findings.'"

Commissioner Nash takes exception

Commissioner Nash asked the Chairman to read the first sentence in Finding Number 3.

"During FY 2012 and FY 2013, SVTA staff believed that policies and procedures were in place regarding the payout of comp time."

Mr. Nash took exception, "I do not agree with that sentence. I believe they compensated theirself and the policies and procedures did not allow that. One of the biggest discussions is, in the minutes was there any justification that the policies and procedures was adopted to allow them to do that. I would like that sentence omitted. I think everything else is somewhat OK."

Ms. Burnham did not agree, "I think one thing you could look at in that first sentence is where it says SVTA staff believed that policy and procedures were in place. That's not really saying that this was something that the board discussed or that the policies and procedures were actually in place. We are not telling OIG, 'You know you were wrong about this.' We're saying that the staff did believe they had the policies and procedures to do that."

Mr. Nash followed up, "This board is responding to the OIG, not staff... I'm sure the staff did... Comp time for Ms. Pra was cashed out in February, early March, before that meeting ever took place."

After some more conversation, Mr. Nash added, "The Board did not approve the policies and procedures that are in question to say that comp time could be paid out."

Ms. Burnam asked for clarification, "OK. This is for fiscal year 2012 and 2013. You're saying, Ms. Pra's payout was made in February, but that was 2014 [2012]. She had a comp time payout in 2012?

Mr. Nash replied, "A comp time payout in February for a 100 hours and early March for 80, well before the policies and procedures was even questioned."

Other than this brief mention of other payouts by Mr. Nash, the OIG and the SVTA Board left out the comp time payouts prior to June of 2012. Administrator Pra was hired on August 15, 2011 and her comp time payouts began shortly after that.

The Staff or the Administrator?

Mr. Nash continued, "When you say staff, it's the Administrator to me. March was the very first meeting in her administration. There was no meeting before March to even amend the 1983 policies and procedures to staff to believe that."

The record indicates that there were SVTA Board meetings on: August 15, 2011; September 9, 2011; December 12, 2011; and March 26, 2012.

Chairman Bashaw took the staff position, "The way that I took it was that it was just staff."

Attorney Airth opined, "I don't think we are trying to say there was a policy and procedure in place for that. But the staff prepared the payouts on the basis that it was permissible."

Mr. Nash jumped in, "Under the direction of the Administrator."

Attorney Airth added, "And they wouldn't have done it if they didn't think it was permissible."

Mr. Nash took exception, "I don't believe that. If the Administrator tells you to payout, the payout would've took place... the board wasn't in the loop; the staff wasn't in the loop at that time."

Attorney Airth: "a confusing time"

Attorney Airth characterized the time, "This was a really confusing time on this board. We had meetings every month. Items were presented; voted on and not voted on. I don't think anybody really knew what was being approved or disapproved. Apparently, the minutes weren't good enough to anybody to go back and look..."

Mr. Airth continued, "I think what the sentence -- we could change that the staff believed policies and procedures in place allowed the payout."

Mr. Nash held his ground, "At that time [FY 2012 - FY 2013] there was nothing in Suwannee Valley transit that even suggested comp time payout. Nothing. There was no rule; there was no policy and procedures; it never was done before; comp time didn't even exist at that point in time and to go and cash out comp time -- and you were bringing in new staff and stuff -- when you say staff it is the Administrator to me... The Administrator comes in and says do this, they do that... There is no documentation for staff to believe that. The only reason that staff believed that was because it was told by the Administrator."

Dep. Finance Manager: Research revealed earlier comp time pay

Deputy Finance Manager DD Raggins was hired on July 2, 2012, well after comp time payments began in the administration of Administrator Pra.

Ms. Raggins told the Board, "When we were doing our research and going back through payroll records, we did find where there were employees who were earning comp time prior to Ms. Pra getting here and that they were cashed out with their comp time. I don't know their specific names right now... The OIG did see them."

Mr. Nash followed up, "... When the time in question, 2012, those didn't even exist -- or they existed, but nobody knew about them. So when you did the comp time you were told by the Administrator to do it, and it wasn't questioned. It was just done.

Ms. Raggins answered, "Right."

Mr. Nash continued, "I think there's a compelling loyalty to add things in there like that [first sentence Finding 3] to help protect the previous Administrator."

Attorney Airth: The organization is being "attacked"

Attorney Airth had a different opinion, "I don't see it that way. I see it as a loyalty to the organization. The organization is being attacked by this OIG report and they want to defend their actions and their organization."

Administrator Gwen Pra began working for the SVTA in August of 2011. According to the available SVTA minutes, the Board met four times through March of 2012. In every instance other than Dec. 2011, in which it is impossible to discern what happened at that meeting, Ms. Pra did the minutes.

Commissioner Nash opined, "If you was to take the comp time and set it aside, the audit [OIG] is just kind of purifying our policies and procedures and book keepings. That's what I got out of reading that OIG report... In all fairness, she come in August – September, nothin', no meetings no nothing as far as board members took place until March; so you have a six month window where all this stuff was going on with no board involvement."

Finance Manager Raggins mentioned that DOT's Sandra Collins was now "checking everything out."

As with everyone else involved, it is not clear what Ms. Collins was doing before she was "checking everything out."

SVTA: In the Digital Divide

The response to the OIG had as its last item, a miscellaneous item that stated: Several months ago the Board hired a secretary to take minutes of all Board meetings. The Board is looking into-the-possibility of having the minutes, as well as its agenda packets digitized.

A brief discussion ensued. Ms. Burnam, a retired school teacher, suggested that "looking into the possibility of having" be changed to "The Board is pursuing having the minutes, as well as its agenda packets digitized."

Today's advanced copy machines will take a document or series of documents and copy them to the industry standard digital pdf file.

Epilogue:

The Suwannee Valley TA, after just under an hour agreed not to contest the OIG findings.

Just before adjournment someone, for the first time, mentioned the riders.

"People are going shopping."

The Transportation for the Disadvantaged program is supposed to be transporting folks that can't transport themselves, that haven't any cars or just can't drive to the store, the library, community centers or events.

One can only wonder how many trips the hundreds of thousands of dollars in management comp time could have bought for the folks that might have used the system.

Yesterday:  $13.9 Million in Funding Since 2009: Who Was Watching the Store?

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