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Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Florida/Tri-County News

SVTA: Live Oak Bus Route Failing -- Needs of Columbia County/Lake City Ignored

LIVE OAK, FL – The Suwannee Valley Transit Authority (SVTA) has been in operation since the mid-1970's with what appears to be a lifetime contract with the state of Florida. It serves the three-county region of Columbia, Hamilton and Suwannee Counties. It is located in Live Oak in Suwannee County. It floats on a sea of Dept. of Transportation tax dollars. The Authority board met Tuesday night. The newly begun and failing Live Oak bus route elicited no questions from any of the Commissioners who sit on the board. Again, the needs of Columbia County/Lake City residents for local surface transportation were ignored.


Suwannee Cnty Com. Larry Sessions

On April 20, 2015, after a tumultuous five years of operation, Suwannee County Commissioner Larry Sessions was appointed the Administrator of the Suwannee Valley Transit Authority. Suwannee County Commissioner Jason Bashaw was Chairman of the SVTA Board.

It appears from the record that Chairman Bashaw did not check with the Florida Commission on Ethics regarding the appointment of Commissioner Sessions.

In a nationwide study, the Florida Commission on Ethics was recently given a D-minus.

According to the April 20 minutes, during Commissioner Sessions's interview, Mr. Bashaw asked his fellow Suwannee County Commissioner Sessions whether or not being a Suwannee County Commissioner would be a legal or ethical conflict if he was appointed the administrator of the SVTA. The minutes state the following: "Commissioner Sessions replied that he had sought legal counsel from the Florida Ethics Commission and that they had no problems with him performing both duties."

The SVTA/Sessions Vision – Columbia County Silent

On May 12, at the next SVTA board meeting, the newly-appointed SVTA Administrator, Suwannee County Commissioner Sessions, added an item to the agenda which read, "SVTA Vision." It appeared to be benign, as most agencies have a vision statement.

According to the minutes, the "SVTA Vision" was about starting up two new transportation programs, rather than presenting any kind of vision statement.

The minutes continued. Mr. Sessions spoke about a lunch program starting in Jasper. He then "reported that he would be starting another route that would pass by all apartments in Live Oak and 85% of the businesses on a 2-hour loop... Once it was a proven route, DOT could provide additional assistance with true bus stops. If the Live Oak route was successful, SVTA would duplicate the program in Lake City."

The route was serviced by the replica trolley in the SVTA vehicle inventory.

There were no comments by Columbia County Commissioners Nash or Phillips concerning the Live Oak route or anything to do with long-needed surface transportation in Columbia County/Lake City.

November 10, 2015: The Live Oak Trolley
Larry Sessions: "I made the decision"

Administrator Sessions gave a brief update report on the Live Oak trolley:

"Bringing in $16 a day. Advertising bringing in about $1100 a month. That's helping subsidizing it some, but it's still a losing proposition. I'll make a decision by the end of the year. If we don't see a big increase, we'll probably have to cut it out. But before I do that I'm going to hit the papers one more time and tell everybody and Live Oak that -- you know -- we love this service – we want to keep it going, but if nobody rides it is going to be a thing of the past. We've been healthy enough financially to keep it going, along with the advertising, but you can only do something so long. The people that are using it really love it, but there is just not enough at this point. I am hoping that it will change."

The Board members sat silent. No one asked how many passengers the Live Oak experiment had carried, or anything else.

Your reporter asked, "Lake City has a lot more traffic. When this was put in Live Oak, how was the decision made?"


Commissioner Bucky Nash: his statements didn't match the record.

Administrator Sessions, without pause, answered, "I made the decision."

Your reporter followed up, "You did?"

Administrator Sessions continued, "Yup. Here's the reason why. We only have so much money. In Lake City I probably need 5 to 6 vehicles, which would be 5 to 6 drivers -- a lot more fuel. DOT would need to be involved in Lake City, also -- buy us a piece of property for a transfer station. You can't make a loop around Lake City like you can in Live Oak..."

There was never any discussion about beginning a lesser scheme in Lake City, which had a demonstrated need for transportation. There was no cost-benefit analysis or study of any kind asked for by the "go along to get along" SVTA board.

The Observer asked, "Wouldn't that be a decision that the commissioners should have made? The people in Lake City have been talking about surface transportation in Lake City for as long as I can remember, going back to when Elizabeth Porter [FL Representative Elizabeth Porter] was a County Commissioner. What happened to the Board decision?"


          Jason Bashaw

Suwannee County Commissioner Bashaw responded, "If my memory serves me -- the minutes could be pulled on this -- Commissioner Sessions kept the board in the loop. If there was a time that the board had some objections they could have aired it then, but the board did not. I know they were kept in the loop. It wasn't that he made that decision independently and that we just kinda like went along with it."

That was the end of the conversation.

 

Columbia County Commissioner, Sylvester "Bucky" Nash commented:

About ten minutes later, as the meeting concluded, Commissioner Nash commented, "On Stew's comment. I was under the impression in our board meetings that Suwannee [Live Oak bus route] was a trial because it was the less expensive one and it was discussed in [by] the Board members."

Suwannee County Commissioner and Chairman Bashaw commented about his fellow Commissioner's performance, "I'm impressed with Mr. Sessions leadership."

Mr. Sessions asked the Board if there were any questions. "Does anybody have any questions on comp time; trip accounts; or complaints?" There were none.

Epilogue

The Observer followed Mr. Bashaw's suggestion and "pulled" the minutes. The record is crystal clear.

Suwannee County Commissioner and newly-appointed SVTA administrator Larry Sessions made the decision.

Columbia County's Commissioners were silent.

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