EDITOR’S NOTE: On Thursday July 21, the full board of the Transportation Planning Agency voted unanimously to hire Valerie Neilson as executive director. Commissioner Maria Marino was absent.
It’s not often that a public-sector job paying nearly $200,000 attracts just seven viable candidates after a national search. It’s even rarer that two of the three finalists are dismissed outright after vigorous, public questioning.
But that’s where the five-member panel selecting the next person to head the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency, which oversees billions in transportation projects countywide, found itself Thursday afternoon.
The panel, featuring two north county representatives — Palm Beach Gardens Mayor Chelsea Reed and Palm Beach County Commissioner Maria Marino — waffled between selecting the agency’s interim director, who almost got the job in December without a search, or leaving the agency in limbo for months by reposting the job.
With Marino opposed, the panel voted to recommend hiring Interim Executive Director Valerie Neilson to head the agency. The full board of 21 elected officials from throughout the county will make the final call on Thursday.
The panel, an executive committee headed by County Mayor Bob Weinroth, lashed out at headhunter Bob Slavin, who was paid $24,000 to conduct the search, for what Weinroth termed a “tortured” process that lasted seven months, far longer than expected, and produced an outcome far below the panel’s standards.
Aside from Neilson, who has run the agency since shortly after Nick Uhren’s sudden and unexpected departure in November, the finalists were Ronnie Blackshear, a planner with the Palm Beach agency in the ‘90s who, in 2020, left after six months as Pasco County’s transportation director; and Chad Parasa, who heads the transportation agency in Wichita, Kansas.
“If these are the best three candidates, then I don’t think Mr. Slavin did a very good job,” Marino said. “Only seven people apply, that’s a debacle.”
Slavin, limited by audio troubles during the meeting, said 11 people applied, but only seven met the job criteria. He said the search would have started earlier if the board had not canceled a December meeting. At a March 28 session, the panel criticized him for failing to put together a job description, instead relying on the work of TPA staff.
‘An organization … that is integral to the future of our county’
The agency sets priorities for state and federal road projects, deciding which roads and bridges are widened or rebuilt, how to continue meeting demand on Interstate 95 and Florida’s Turnpike and even whether bike lanes and sidewalks are designed safely. The most recent five-year plan it approved contained $3.2 billion worth of projects.
The new director is likely to play a key role in obtaining a recurring source of money, such as a voter-approved 1-cent sales tax extension, to pay Palm Beach County’s share of bringing a commuter rail line to the Brightline tracks, a step Broward and Miami-Dade counties have taken.
At a March meeting, Reed summed up the panel’s frustration over delays in the hiring this way: “We’re here for a mission and a vision for an organization that is integral to the future of our county and our community and we cannot stay in the weeds with this any further.”
On Thursday, Reed said of the candidates: “If this is the cream of the crop, then, yes, Ms. Neilson really rises to the top of it. … I’m really disappointed.”
She pointed out that both Blackshear and Parasa were among 26 candidates for the transportation planning top job in Volusia County, a smaller area than Palm Beach County, but neither were selected as finalists.
“They really flopped in the interview,” Wellington Councilmember and panel member Michael Napoleone said. “They didn’t do their homework to prepare for the job.”
For example, when asked about issues confronting the Palm Beach TPA, Parasa said he really didn’t know much about the local agency or the area. He knew nothing about going to voters to get the sales tax extended.
Panel member Joel Flores, the Greenacres mayor who helped Slavin winnow the field to three, said he, too, couldn’t believe that even on their second go-around the finalists couldn’t answer questions about local conditions.
“Valerie stood out,” Flores said. “I don’t know if it’s the lack of preparation of the others. … She knows what she’s doing.”
Weinroth, too, backed Neilson, saying he was impressed with her proposals and “it is clear in my mind that Neilson is superior.”
Departures at agency draw criticism, defenses
But five TPA employees have left this year, drawing concerns from Marino.
“I don’t like the way our TPA has gone in the last few months,” she said. “I don’t think we have the three best candidates for the job.”
She later added: “To give Valerie the nomination as the best of the least is not the way to do this. Something was wrong with this process. I have nothing against Valerie. That’s not what I’m saying. This was a bad process.”
Weinroth suggested that potential candidates may have backed away because they knew they would be going up against Neilson, who has worked at the agency for seven years except for a break last year when she quit to move to Alaska before rapidly returning. She agreed to return to the agency as interim director without the guarantee that she would get the job permanently.
Weinroth refused to pin the blame on Neilson for the staff departures as well, pointing out that Uhren’s surprise departure threw staff for a loop and that all companies are having trouble keeping employees these days. Reed added that after Uhren resigned on Nov. 1, he didn’t come in to work for two months.
Neilson said that all of the people leaving took jobs in the private sector. Three had been with the agency for only about a year. Three of the openings have been filled, two by hires and one by promotion. The fifth resignation doesn’t become effective until July 22.
Neilson’s former position as deputy director remains open, as well, frozen by the board so the new executive director could fill it.
In exit interviews, departing staffers praised the agency’s culture but cited the desire for more flexibility to work from home, the heavy workload due to staff shortages and opportunities for greater pay in the private sector.
$197,500 pay package proposed
More departures can be expected, Reed said, if the board doesn’t fill the director opening now.
“The more instability we have, the more we’re going to lose folks,” she said. “We need to go forward with stability now. By putting someone in who is passionate and ready to go, that’s not a bad thing. That’s a very good thing.”
The board asked Reed to hammer out a contract before Thursday paying Neilson $183,750 with deferred compensation bringing the package to $197,500, which is less than the $215,725 paid to Uhren.
Neilson would be the agency’s second director since the long tenure of Randy Whitfield, who left in 2013 after more than 30 years. She was with the agency under Uhren when it split from the county and had a hand in drawing up its mission and vision statements and its move to its own offices downtown.
“I’ve been part of all of that,” she said. “I love this agency and I love the job. … I am well-suited to lead this agency forward.”
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.
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