Along the Coast: Abrams hired to lead Tri-Rail’s governing agency

By Steve Plunkett

Palm Beach County Commissioner Steven Abrams, who leaves office Nov. 20, will spend only a few weeks unemployed before tackling his next job — as executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.
His former colleagues on the SFRTA governing board hired him on a 9-1 vote to lead the agency that runs Tri-Rail, choosing his political savvy over the deep operational skills of rival job candidates.
“Oh, I’m thrilled,” Abrams exclaimed as well-wishers congratulated him following the Oct. 26 vote. “I’m excited about the opportunity.”
Abrams, who resigned as chairman of the governing board in May to apply for the director’s position, dismissed concerns about his lack of operational expertise.
“I have the background to jump right in,” he said.
The other finalists were Joe Giulietti, retired president of Metro-North Commuter Railroad in New York City and before that executive director of SFRTA for 13 years; Mikel Oglesby, SFRTA’s deputy executive director; Benjamin Limmer, assistant general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority; and Tim Tenne, chief operating officer of the Maryland Transit Administration, who withdrew from consideration after his job interview.
Two other finalists — Joseph Black, a practice leader/director at Washington, D.C.-based Network Rail Consulting, and Raymond Suarez, chief operating officer of the Denton County Transportation Authority in Texas — withdrew before the interviews.
Jack Stephens, SFRTA’s current executive director, is retiring at the end of the year.
Abrams’ appointment seemed in jeopardy at first as board members discussed his nomination.
“I feel like the agency … needs some strong management right now,” said former state Sen. Jim Scott, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer, who preferred Giulietti.
Broward County Commissioner Tim Ryan was dismayed that so many applicants dropped out, including Tenne, “who hit it out of the park” in his interview.
“It just gave me a sense that there’s something else going on that I haven’t figured out in this whole interview process,” said Ryan, whose second choice was Limmer.
But Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban Bovo, who succeeded Abrams as chair and supported his candidacy, said all the applicants had good points and flaws.
“We need a person, in my opinion, that can navigate the politics of the three counties, and that’s not an easy thing to do,” Bovo said. “We need somebody that’s going to be able to go to Tallahassee, to the federal government. We need somebody that’s going to be able to exploit relationships and needs to do it immediately, the moment they hit the ground running.
“There’s no learning curve here, and that, by definition, perhaps may disqualify a few.”
The Nov. 6 general election will decide who succeeds term-limited Abrams on the Palm Beach County Commission. Running are Democrat Robert Weinroth, a former deputy mayor of Boca Raton, and Republican William “Billy” Vale, a pharmaceutical representative and political newcomer. The district covers coastal communities in the southeast portion of the county.
“The timing works pretty well,” said Abrams, who still has to negotiate his salary with SFRTA. Stephens is paid $260,000 a year.
Abrams, 60, is finishing his ninth year as a county commissioner and sat on the Boca Raton City Council as a member and mayor for 17 years.

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