4:10 PM EDT, August 31, 2013
If you're mad about paying high tolls, you should be furious about the politics brewing at the expressway authority.
Political appointees orchestrated a coup last week, ousting its executive director,who had actually cleaned up the scandal- and conflict-coated agency — and saved the authority money.
In case that sounds like the kind of inside baseball you couldn't care less about, let me direct your attention to the image on this page: a shiny quarter.
See, you have to pay more of those when the authority wastes money.
The authority has raised tolls twice in the past four years. So really, we're not talking just one shiny quarter. We're talking two at each tollbooth.
Two tollbooths per trip means $1 … round trip means $2 … five days a week means $10 … 50 weeks a year means $500. Just for the recent increases.
Now do you care about the shenanigans that went down last week?
The meeting of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority started pleasantly enough. In fact, it was supposed to be a celebration: 50 years of toll roads in Central Florida.
It was also celebrating being scandal-free. Long mired in bad bond deals, pay-for-play politics — a "culture of corruption," as a grand jury described it — the authority had finally cleaned up its act.
New Director Max Crumit had ushered in a new era of ethics and transparency.
He ousted the people behind the costly bond deals. He started posting all of the agency's financial transactions online. He aired the agency's board meetings on live TV.
He was watching your quarters. And, for the first time in many years, the authority was scandal-free.
This would not do.
Board member Scott Batterson — a Rick Scott appointee who took his seat under a cloud of controversy over admitted conflicts of interest — wanted Crumit gone.
Crumit told the board that Batterson had come to him a few days earlier and told him to either resign quietly or be fired by a "majority" of the board.
This seemed odd. Batterson isn't the chairman of the expressway board, and Florida "Government in the Sunshine" laws prohibit him from privately conspiring with other board members to line up votes.
So Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, a member of the board, called out Batterson on what seemed like a suspicious statement.
She asked Batterson at the meeting whether he had told Crumit he had the votes to fire him.
Batterson gave a nonanswer. So Jacobs asked again.
This time, Batterson offered a carefully stated denial. "I … [pause] … never suggested that I had any idea where the rest of the board stood."
Yet, coincidentally, a majority of the board agreed with Batterson and was ready to oust Crumit.
Even though no such discussion had been placed on the public agenda. And even though the board had unanimously given Crumit rave reviews just a few weeks before.
Batterson even admitted Crumit had done a "fantastic job" … as he tried to oust him.
"I'm aghast at this," said board Chairman Walt Ketcham, who seemed to realize a coup was afoot.
It sure looked planned.
In another wild coincidence, new board member Marcos Pena — a Florida Hospital exec and also an appointee of Rick Scott — had prepared a three-page paper about why he wanted Crumit gone.
And Mayor Jacobs later revealed that Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad had called her right before the meeting began — to let her know something big was about to go down.
Shortly thereafter, Prasad's representative on the five-member board — district Secretary Noranne Downs — said she, too, wanted Crumit gone.
The board voted 3-2, with Jacobs and Ketcham in the minority, to begin searching for a replacement for Crumit, who will stay on in the meantime.
By now the politics of this little drama might have you thinking about checking out the pictures of Miley Cyrus that I'm sure we still have on our website.
But remember that shiny quarter. No matter how fascinated you are by Cyrus' "twerking" on MTV, nothing she does will have a $500-a-year impact on your wallet.
And that's what this is all about: money.
Jacobs said as much during the meeting: "I have a feeling that's really what's going on."
There are tons of ways for insiders to cash in at this agency that plans $1 billion projects.
It's also about power.
Batterson & Co. managed to prepare a fig leaf of a reason for ousting Crumit, saying they worried he was seeking private-sector employment while working for a public agency.
Of course, if that really was the reason, they could have simply passed a policy to prevent him from doing so.
Ironically, the guy staging the coup — Batterson — is known for conflicts of interest. He filed two "potential conflict" forms when the governor first appointed him in 2011.
As Jacobs said to Batterson during the meeting: "Those who live in glass houses really need to be careful about throwing stones."
I could go on. We've written stories about the bad bond deals that cost drivers money while enriching those involved. And about questionable ties among board members, politicians and those who profit off expressway business.
But all you really need to know is this:
Bad things were going on at the authority.
A new guy came in and cleaned up.
Now the political appointees of Rick Scott want the new guy gone.
If I were a governor facing re-election, I wouldn't want that public image.
And if I were a citizen watchdog — or even a regular toll payer — I'd want answers.
I'd want an investigation into whether anyone lined up votes in advance of the meeting — in violation of the "Sunshine" laws.
Crumit suggested they did. Batterson said he did not.
Sounds like a great subject for an independent investigator — especially because there are literally billions of quarters at stake.
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