The Florida Transportation Commission recommended three men to Gov. Rick Scott for the replacement of outgoing FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad on Thursday.
That’s pretty quick turnaround considering that Prasad announced he was leaving on Dec. 2. Also, keep in mind that the $10-billion agency is the state’s biggest builder, overseeing 6,500 employees and a work plan through mid-2019 that has nearly 7,000 projects, including 762 new lane miles, 7,345 repaved miles, 190 repaired bridges and 76 replaced bridges.
With the possible opening of Cuba for trade, perhaps this would be a good time to slow down and consider the direction of a Florida transportation system that’s in dire need of new revenue.
Instead, it was full speed ahead for the nine member advisory board, which unanimously (!) chose three finalists from a field of eight that was culled only in a quickie job posting in the past two weeks.
The finalists are:
-- Jim Boxold, who since 2013 has been Prasad’s chief of staff and director of legislative affairs. Previously, he served 10 years as the director of cabinet affairs for the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture.
-- Eugene Conti, vice president of his own consulting company who served as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation from 2009-2013.
-- Art Misiaszek, deputy division engineer overseeing the New England division of Amtrak’s capital and reimbursable projects, making him responsible for planning, design, construction and project management.
Scott will choose from these three or decide to order a more exhaustive national search, which would then be conducted by the FTC. Under Florida law, the FTC, a board of volunteers appointed by the governor, recommends finalists, who are then chosen by the governor.
FTC Chairman Ronald Howse said he decided on an abbreviated search because it would have taken too long, about a month and a half, to advertise and review applicants for the position, which pays about $141,000. The job was posted on the FTC’s website, which was enough notice because only insiders would qualify for it anyway, Howse said.
“Everyone who is in the know of Florida knew Ananth was resigning,” Howse said. “So a lot of people were calling asking ‘How do I apply? What do I do?’ It’s a tight circle. This is a major, seasoned professional job. All the people who would be interested and have the resumes qualified for this sort of watch it. The senior elite of transportation is a relatively small group in general. Call it 500. It goes through the industry fast. 'Ananth is leaving. Who’s going to be the next Ananth?’ That happens fast.”
But some say even the pared-down search is a facade. According to FTC commissioner Maurice Ferre, two people called him to complain that they would apply for the job but didn’t because they were told that Scott has already decided on who he’ll pick.
"They thought it was too quick a turnaround," Ferre said.
Even so, Ferre said he was in favor of the abbreviated search.
“We need leadership immediately because the (legislative) session will start in a few months,” Ferre said.
Howse defended the shortened search and dismissed speculation that Scott had already made his choice.
“Every time I’ve seen what he’s done, he interviews, he really does go from his heart,” Howse said. “It’s almost like a gut feel. Me knowing the governor, he believes through his experience he has the level to pick the right person for the job because that’s what his skill set has been all his career.”
Those the FTC eliminated on Thursday are: Paul Steinman, secretary of DOT district 7, which covers Tampa Bay; Rep. Lake Ray, R-Jacksonville; Larry Newsom, Escambia County’s assistant county administrator; Billy Hattaway, secretary of DOT district 1 in Bartow; and Richard Biter, FDOT’s assistant secretary of intermodal systems development. A ninth applicant, Cliff Wilson, interim secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, withdrew.
Neither Ferre nor any other commissioner mentioned who rumors say Scott has already chosen, but it’s clear from the finalists who is an early favorite.
That would be Boxold, the status quo candidate for an advisory board that lauds Prasad for having done a good job.
Buxold’s selection as a finalist “gives the governor somebody to completely continue with what’s taken place in the last four years,” said Commissioners Jay Trumbull.
“What’s going on with Cuba is going to affect us, the whole issue of trade and change, and our relationship with Washington is going to be important,” said Commissioners John Browning of East Palatka. “(Boxold) has worked in Washington (he served as the legislative director for U.S. Rep. Porter Goss from 1995-2001) and he’s worked with Adam Putnam.”
“He has skill sets in working with the Legislature and the governor in moving ahead with the agenda,” said Commissioner Beth Kigel. “Given our timeframe, that’s a particular (attribute) that’s strongly desired.”
Howse moved early in the meeting to place each of the candidates in categories, which he called “flavors”, which he said would theoretically give Scott more various options. But it was a move that would end up helping Boxold because he was placed in the same category as other DOT insiders and professionals: Biter, Newsom, Ray, Steinman and Hattaway. All qualified to do the job, but all considered to be the same “flavor” by the board, too. That meant that when Boxold was picked, they were all cut.
That left only two flavors left.
According to Howse, Conti represents an an out-of-state flavor as the former head of the North Carolina DOT, which has a budget of about $5 billion and lots of toll road projects.
“He has an incredible resume,” Howse said. “If we were to do a national search, this is who we would find.”
Ferre said that one of Conti’s perceived negatives is that he’s a Democrat.
“But I don’t care if he’s an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ if he’s a qualified professional with a good track record,” Ferre said.
“He’s a very impressive candidate with an out-of-state flavor and viewpoint,” said Kigel.
Misiaszek, who has specialized in rail and public transportation, represents an exotic flavor for auto-centric Florida.
“At some point, roads can’t be widened any more, so what you have to do is public transporation,” Howse said. “(Misiaszek) understands public transportation. Out of the resumes we have, he’s his own flavor. That’s my read. He’s got an awesome resume.”
So now the three choices go to Scott, who killed a high-speed rail project in his first official act as governor in 2011. Howse said he doesn’t know how long it will take Scott to choose, but said he expects a decision by the first week of January.
Will he pick the public transportation and rail guy? The out-of-state guy with toll road experience? Or the insider who will continue the policies of Prasad?