James E. Drapp

It was only a temporary appointment and the last thing the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority needed was more controversy. But that is what it sparked when it named James E. Drapp, vice president and officer-in-charge of HNTB’s Tampa office, as the authority’s interim executive director to oversee day-to-day construction and engineering operations.

A report issued Nov. 29th by the Florida Auditor General says that the appointment created a conflict of interest and that the authority should clarify the appointment and the duties of the interim executive director. HNTB had already been serving as the toll agency’s general engineering consultant and has been paid $4.66 million under its contract since Jan. 2005.

The authority’s general counsel replied that the authority’s board had not given Drapp “any additional duties or responsibilities” that he did not already have as general engineering consultant, according to the audit report.

The auditor general’s report made other criticisms of the authority’s financial management. One of the most interesting related to selection of firms by using requests for proposal. The authority’s board has the right to change the ranking of the top firms picked by the selection committee, but the board doesn’t have to supply a reason. The report says the board should be required to disclose its reasons “to ensure the integrity of the RFP process.”

The authority , which has major plans to further expand its regional toll system, had lost its executive director to a scandalous and sudden resignation and is facing ongoing scrutiny of its overall operations,

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  • The latest sting took place in early November, when Ralph Mervine submitted his immediate resignation after the Tampa Tribune reported that he owned an X-rated video production company in California. The Tribune had been researching the authority’s finances as a result of an ongoing investigation initiated in September by the state Auditor General. That state audit had come about as a result of questions over the authority’s awarding of a contract for legal services.

    Mathias Bergendahl, a spokesperson for the authority, said prior to Nov. 29 release that the audit “clearly will help to guide for any possible changes going forward. It really is aimed to strengthen the authority, and that certainly will be helpful.”

    Bergendahl said the agency would conduct a national search for a new director, and estimated it could take up to nine months to find a permanent replacement. State Sen. Jim Sebesta’s named had been floated as a possible interim leader, but the senator’s office indicated he had withdrawn his name from consideration.

    Major changes are a possibility. A day after Mervine’s resignation, the St. Petersburg Times called in its Nov. 10 editorial for the dismantling of the agency.

    Mervine, formerly director of the Florida Department of Transportation’s district one, was brought in to replace Patrick McCue, who was fired in the wake of problems with the construction of the new reversible-lanes bridge for the authority’s Lee Roy Selmon Expressway This unique project was completed and opened to traffic in July and is already surpassing its estimated ridership figures, according to Bob Hartnett, executive director of the Transportation & Expressway Authority Membership of Florida, an association of state toll authorities.

    At the time of Mervine’s resignation, the agency was making progress on what would have been one of the first projects of its kind in Florida. The East-West Connector, which would link to the New Tampa area, was moving forward as a public-private partnership, where a private entity would be involved in the financing, construction and collecting of tolls for the new road. Bids for the project were being received in early November.

    Jay Thomas Gibbs, the authority’s chairman, says the East-West road is important and the authority is committed to finishing it.

    A version of this story originally appeared in Southeast Construction