The board of a new regional toll road agency met for the first time Thursday, with members promising to clean up the mess of predecessors and act more openly and honestly.
Lake County Commissioner Welton Cadwell was elected chairman and predicted there would be skeptics among the motorists driving on the 109 miles of road now owned and operated by the Central Florida Expressway Authority.
“We know you’re out there,” he said. “We’re going to prove you wrong. We’re going to be a dynamic board.”
The agency formerly known as the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority was rocked in recent months by the suspension and resignation of two board members, one of whom is facing two counts of bribery-related charges.
The dissolution of the Orlando expressway authority was not related to the scandal. But state legislators who wrote the law that regionalized the agency promised Thursday the new operation would be a major improvement.
“Wipe the slate clean and start with a new beginning,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, a sponsor of the bill that turned the authority into one that can build roads in Lake, Seminole and Osceola counties, not just Orange, as in years past.
The new board is supposed to have nine members, but only the six elected officials placed on it by law showed up Thursday. Former chairman Walter Ketcham also took a seat. He is hopeful that he will be one of the three appointments Gov. Rick Scott has yet to make.
Including Ketcham, 21 people have applied for the posts. Among them are: Atlee Mercer, chairman of the Osceola County Expressway Authority; Scott Taylor, chairman of Worldwide Orchids Inc. in Apopka; Orlando attorney Pat Christiansen; architect and former Orange County Commissioner Allen Arthur; Orlando attorney Tommy Boroughs; Sanford lawyer Frank Ioppolo; and Kissimmee real estate broker Jose Alvarez.
Scott spokesman John Tupps would not say the new members would be chosen.
“The governor will take the right amount of time to find the best people possible to serve on the Central Florida Expressway Authority,” Tupps said in an email.
The previous board had five members, three of whom were Scott appointees. Two of them, Scott Batterson and Marco Pena, left the board in the wake of a nine-month grand jury investigation.
Pena last month pleaded guilty to breaking state public-meeting laws and paid a $500 fine. He is cooperating with State Attorney Jeff Ashton and could testify against Batterson, former state representative-turned-lobbyist Chris Dorworth and his girlfriend Rebekah Hammond.
Batterson is charged with offering a $5 million a year authority contract to a consultant in exchange for hiring some of Batterson’s friends. He is free on $3,000 bond. Batterson also is accused of the so-called Florida Sunshine laws, as are Dorworth and Hammond.
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who served on the old board and has a seat on the new one, said she intends to push for tougher ethical rules for the Central Florida authority, including making lobbyists register with the agency. She also wants a public log of all contacts between board members and lobbyists.
Cadwell said he is open to such an idea but said his main goal as chairman was to get the board “moving in the right direction.”
As for the possibility of raising tolls in the future – increases are set to take effect without board action – Cadwell said he would have to learn more about the agency’s finances before offering an opinion.
“I’m just learning that end of it,” he said.
The authority is expected to bring in nearly $320 million during the coming year in tolls and other revenues.