TAMPA — Philip Hale said Monday he is retiring as HART's chief executive officer in 90 days to return to Texas to work in the family's business following his mother's recent death there.
“I'm going to retire,” Hale said simply when it was his turn to speak toward the close of HART's monthly board meeting. After board members praised Hale's work, including Hale's one outspoken critic on the board in County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, the no-nonsense administrator said with a grin, “Thank you, but I'm not dying.”
Hale earns $150,000 a year. It is expected an interim director will be named by May and that HART will conduct a nationwide search for a successor.
“If I had to choose what's been most satisfying about the last three years, it would be ridership, lowering costs per mile and achieving the labor contracts,” Hale said in an interview after the board meeting.
His departure will take place three years after a stunning, lengthy, evening meeting in April 2011 that HART insiders have labeled “Black Monday,” when the board persuaded him to lead HART after a complicated set of political maneuvering forced out director David Armijo, who recruited Hale from Dallas to Tampa.
Hale's 42 years of transit experience, including rail and bus operations in Dallas where he helped start up the area's light rail network, helped HART through the turmoil of one if its historically frequent troubled periods.
Hale's long standing transit maintenance background provided a firm grounding for his focus on HART's operational matters. He believed it is the board's role to set the agenda for the transit agency, and frequently reminded the board he was willing to follow whatever vision they chose in pursuing improved service.
However, Hale and his staff also took the initiative in numerous areas. Hale firmed plans for the area's first Bus Rapid Transit service after a 2010 county sales tax referendum to finance light rail failed.
“There are show horses and there are work horses,” HART chairman and Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez said in praising Hale. “Too often we (favor) show horses.”
HART board member Karen Jaroch, an industrial engineer who has launched local tea party initiatives, said she came to the board as a critic, but her outlook had changed during Hale's tenure.
“You really gave me a much better (lesson) on how the agency could be run more efficiently,” Jaroch said.
HART board member Fran Davin credited Hale with 10 leadership accomplishments from tripling the number of bus shelters to inaugurating a 10-year strategic plan to reducing the cost per mile of service from $7.10 to $6.70 a mile.
“This is a great loss to this agency and a great loss to the whole community,” Davin said.
“The standards of excellence and progress achieved in the last three years under the leadership of Mr. Hale as chief executive has been unequaled in this agency's history,” said Davin, who participated in the creation of HART in 1979.
“You brought stability ... and a phenomenal staff,” Sharpe said. “I hope the agency will build on it.”
HART faces continued discussion over a merger or a joint management arrangement with the the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority; a revamping of HART's role and make-up of its board as some elected officials want HART to play a larger role in overseeing county transportation projects; a possible county tax referendum in 2015 to expand transit and possibly inaugurate light rail; and the need to select a new director in a community, whose ambitious younger business and elected officials seem to favor marketing and salesmanship talents.
Sharpe was the only board member whose annual evaluation of Hale last summer was negative. Members of the pro-transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay, whose organizers are professionals and generally younger than the elected official base that's been in power in Hillsborough County, also have indicated as has Sharpe that they'd prefer more ambitious leadership at HART.
Davin challenged that point directly.
“HART doesn't lack for leadership,” Davin said. “HART lacks the money to increase service.”