HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Florida – In what could be the strongest sign yet of the Public Transportation Commission's demise, Hillsborough’s county attorney is preparing to end his office's relationship with the controversial PTC.
Emails obtained by 10Investigates reveal County Attorney Chip Fletcher coordinating with County Commissioner - and frustrated PTC chairman - Victor Crist to transfer legal representation to a new firm in case the Legislature dissolves the controversial agency in 2017 and the county's legal staff gets involved in how the agency's responsibilities are assumed.
The PTC is the independently-operated and independently-funded county agency in charge of regulating all for-hire vehicles, including taxicabs, limousines, wreckers, and ambulances. But it's been their controversial enforcement of ridesharing companies Lyft and Uber that have made headlines.
Crist has been among the outspoken local politicians who have disagreed with how the agency's executive director, Kyle Cockream, has enforced county rules on ridesharing companies while negotiations – and a lawsuit – between the PTC and Lyft/Uber continue. The main sticking points have been fingerprinting and background checks for independent drivers.
“I’m done having to enforce rules per Florida statute that I disagree with and dealing with an agency that is obviously over influenced by the entities they regulate," Crist wrote in his email to Fletcher last week.
Fletcher told 10Investigates Tuesday the decision was not influenced by Cockream's tight relationship - and potential conflict-of-interest - with the taxicab owners he is tasked with regulations.
Crist has grown increasingly frustrated and vocal in his criticisms of Cockream recently after he discovered the executive director was using off-duty taxicab drivers in PTC ridesharing stings. He also discovered Cockream was extensively coordinating with the taxicab industry to combat Lyft and Uber both in Hillsborough County and beyond.
Fletcher wrote Crist that he was in the process of briefing each commissioner on the recommendation and would provide legal staff to the PTC, per its current agreement, until the agency could find replacement counsel.
Last year, a number of Tampa Bay-area lawmakers tried to eradicate the PTC, but failed to pass a bill. However, sources tell 10Investigates it’s more likely to happen in the 2017 legislative session now that PTC-supporting Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, has retired and PTC opponent Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, is now the speaker of the House.
Hillsborough is the only one of Florida’s 67 counties with such an independent agency regulating for-hire vehicles.
Eliminating the PTC would deregulate for-hire vehicles in Hillsborough County, allowing Lyft and Uber to operate as they wish.
But it could also shift many of the burdens of regulation – from enforcing wrecker rules to responding to consumer complaints – to county staff. And it’s unclear which department(s) would be responsible for picking up those duties. The county attorney's office would be expected to be active in the dissolution process and Fletcher said he didn't want to find himself with a conflict of interest, representing the county and PTC during such a process.
Cockream told 10Investigates Tuesday he would not be commenting on any of the conflict-of-interest accusations until he could address them all “at a later time.”