As the federal government unleashes billions for transportation, the head of the countywide agency charged with prioritizing how all that money is spent has resigned.
Nick Uhren’s decision to quit the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency after eight years left the agency’s 21-member board scrambling Thursday to find a replacement for the $200,000-a-year job.
The board punted on selecting a search firm, voted in a new chairman after the current chairman privately expressed interest in the director’s job and came close to hiring a former deputy to act as interim chief.
Uhren, who submitted his resignation Nov. 1, would not say why he is leaving. Board members praised his work, with some beseeching him to stay while others worried that he already had checked out even though his contract requires him to remain until late January.
Rejecting a motion from County Mayor Robert Weinroth to terminate Uhren immediately and hire former deputy Valerie Neilson as interim director, the board voted to wait a month until it’s newly created executive committee, headed by Weinroth, can weigh in.
The TPA board is made up of elected officials, five from the county commission, 15 from the county’s 13 largest cities and one from the Port of Palm Beach. With so many elected officials, it can be difficult to arrive at decisions and Thursday’s discussion led to so many motions and substitute motions that the board’s lawyer referred to it as a car crash.
While working mostly under the radar, the board is among the most powerful in the county, telling state officials how to spend hundreds of millions for roads, bridges, sidewalks and bike paths, often having to make a decision if the money should go to Boca, Jupiter or somewhere in between.
With the approval of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, the state stands to receive more than $15 billion for highways, bridges and public transportation. The board will prioritize how that money is spent in Palm Beach County.
Uhren’s unexpected decision comes as he was prepared to lead a campaign to develop voter support to extend an existing 1-cent countywide sales tax to raise $270 million a year for transportation projects. The tax, passed by voters in 2016, pays for school, city and county building projects but is expected to sunset by 2026.
‘Recharge the batteries’?
Uhren called the special meeting to select a consulting firm to lead a nationwide search for his successor, presenting bids from four consultants. But the bids garnered scant attention during the two-hour meeting.
Wellington Councilman Michael Napoleone praised Uhren’s work and asked him to convert his resignation into a request for a three-month leave of absence to “recharge the batteries” after a difficult 18 months under COVID.
“I would hate to see him leave only three months later to regret that choice,” Napoleone said.
Uhren rejected the offer, saying “I’ve made my decision and I’m ready to move on.”
‘In a tricky spot’
The discussion shifted quickly after Weinroth suggested hiring Neilson as interim director. Several board members supported the move, assuring their colleagues that they had spoken to her and were certain of her interest.
Neilson left the TPA after nearly seven years in July to take a city job in Anchorage, Alaska, where she had grown up. But the job changed with the election of a new mayor and she and her husband decided to return to Florida before their belongings even made it past Seattle.
When she left her TPA job as deputy director, she said, Uhren had told her it would not be right to hire her back if she changed her mind, a position he maintained even though her job remained open when she returned.
In October, she started a job as deputy director of the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency. At the end of the meeting, she addressed the TPA board, which includes two West Palm Beach city commissioners, conceding “I’m in a tricky spot,” but assuring them that she wanted to be considered for the interim post.
‘Not the time to be rudderless’
To make his case for releasing Uhren now, Weinroth said that Uhren is restrained by his contract from even looking for another job during his 90-day separation period “so this really is handcuffing him.”
Weinroth wanted to appoint an interim director immediately, he added, out of concern that Uhren has been working “virtually” over the past few weeks.
“I need someone who is going to be totally focused on what’s going on with the TPA,” Weinroth said later in the meeting. “The infrastructure bill is going to push trillions of dollars out into the states and the TPA is going to be a factor in how that money is distributed. … This is not the time to be rudderless.”
Uhren did not respond to a call seeking comment.
‘Reservations about her rehiring’
But Weinroth’s move to appoint Neilson hit a roadblock over Uhren’s refusal to rehire her when she returned from Alaska. Board members asked Uhren to explain.
“When she chose to leave we had numerous discussions about whether that was the right course of action for her with the understanding that if she were to proceed with that she would not be given an opportunity to be rehired,” Uhren told the board. “I’ve had subsequent discussions with staff who have expressed reservations about her rehiring.”
Neilson, in an interview, said she works well with the staff, particularly the other deputy director, Andrew Uhlir. However, Uhren recommended Uhlir to be interim director.
Thrown by Uhren’s comments, several board members backed off an immediate appointment of Neilson.
“I hadn’t heard that before,” Boca Raton Councilman Andy Thomson said. “We may be kind of rushing to judgment on that. We need to give it more thought.”
His motion to continue the discussion next month passed 16-5 with three county commissioners — Weinroth, Gregg Weiss and Dave Kerner — and two city representatives opposed.
Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to have its newly created executive committee recommend how to proceed with both an interim director and a search firm and report back Dec. 16.
Pinto made play for director’s job
In a far less public display, the board also moved on Thursday from its chairman, Royal Palm Beach Mayor Fred Pinto.
While not discussed during the meeting, Pinto had reached out to the board’s attorney in the wake of Uhren’s resignation to see if he could hold the position of executive director, either on an interim or permanent basis, without giving up his board seat.
While the lawyer’s opinion said Pinto must leave the board, it suggested he could remain mayor of Royal Palm, a position Weinroth sharply criticized in an email to Uhren, saying it ignored “the most obvious conflict” between loyalty to Royal Palm and loyalty to the entire county.
“He probably recognized that he was going to have to make a decision on which way to go,” Weinroth said in an interview Friday, explaining why Pinto’s interest did not come up during the meeting. “It was not a given that the board would embrace him as interim director. He probably felt better to keep it off the table.”
Pinto did not return messages seeking comment.
The board unanimously elected Weinroth as chairman, just two days after the county commission named him mayor.
Makeup of executive committee
In an unusually close 11-10 vote, two north county representatives clashed, albeit nicely, over which one would become board vice chairman. Palm Beach Gardens Vice Mayor Chelsea Reed cast her vote for her opponent, County Commissioner Maria Marino, but still won, receiving all 11 of her votes from city representatives.
As chair and vice chair, Weinroth and Reed automatically were assigned to the board’s newly created executive committee. The board also voted for Marino, Napoleone and Greenacres Mayor Joel Flores to serve on the panel that will recommend an interim director.
© 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.
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