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Gov. Rick Scott's rejection of federal money for Florida's high-speed rail unleashed the un-Iorio

TAMPA — When Gov. Rick Scott announced his intent to turn down $2.4 billion in federal grant money for high-speed rail, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio did something very un-Iorio like.

Seldom one to level criticism — or praise — at fellow elected officials, Iorio rebuked what she called "the worst decision I've ever seen by a governor in my 26 years in public life."

"I do feel the way he reached this decision was not in keeping with the standards we expect of a governor," Iorio said this week, explaining her strong condemnation. "He did not have the facts."

With those sharp words off her chest, Iorio put away her dagger. Before that Feb. 16 day was over, she had dispatched her top attorney to undertake a methodical, workman-like response to Scott's concerns over the project that is more in keeping with Iorio's style.

Some 48 hours later, the framework of a plan was in place. It aimed to respond to Scott's main stated concern: that construction and operating cost overruns would fall on state taxpayers.

The effort propelled by Iorio quickly evolved into a seemingly unusual spasm of regional cooperation undertaken with urgency, a word not often associated with government. It was the sort of big-picture collaboration that many advocates of high-speed rail said would be encouraged by the project.

Though their pitch ultimately did not impress Scott, Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields said the region's political and business leaders "came together proving that communities can bond for a common cause."

• • •

Scott's announcement caught many people by surprise. When elected in November, he had said he intended to withhold a decision on accepting federal high-speed rail money until after he saw a feasibility study.

His announcement came before that study was complete and before companies were allowed to submit bids detailing how much risk they might assume.

And that's the part that angered Iorio. There was no soliciting of opinions from advocates or listening to opposing views, as Iorio said she has seen from governors before Scott, even those with whom she has strongly disagreed.

"None of that occurred," Iorio said. "For him to abruptly hold a press conference and say he just knows this is not going to work, that is not the standard we expect from a governor."

Not anticipating the action, no one locally had prepared a response plan.

What followed, from outward appearances, was chaos. Local elected officials called each other. They reached out to heads of transit and planning agencies. Economic development promoters mobilized. Members of Congress worked the phones.

But there was no one entity with a reach spanning from Orlando to Tampa to marshal a response. Before the day was up, Iorio was huddling with Tampa City Attorney Chip Fletcher.

"Basically Mayor Iorio is very focused on results and how you get things done," Fletcher said. "So her response was, 'Let's figure out what we can do.' "

Fletcher was quickly working with representatives from affected governments and their attorneys. Lawyers from the private sector with government expertise were consulted. Officials with the federal Department of Transportation offered guidance.

Two days later, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, disseminated the initial fruits of Fletcher's teamwork. It called for cities along the proposed rail line to form a partnership that would take over the project and require a winning private vendor to accept all risks of cost overruns.

While several people played a role in shaping the proposal, Castor said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson insisted that the work be coordinated through one person. That ended up being Fletcher.

"Mayor Iorio was absolutely instrumental in allowing that to happen and allowing Chip to be the lead," Castor said.

The work of those initial two days formed the template of what was presented to legal advisers for Scott.

• • •

The work was very much a collaboration among business and government leaders from throughout the region, Iorio said, and ultimately included representatives from Miami.

"I think everyone really pitched in together to contribute what they could," said Stuart Rogel, who was peripherally involved in the talks as president and CEO of Tampa Bay Partnership, an economic development group. "Nobody was trying to take credit or keep anyone else out of the room."

Of course, the hours immediately after Scott's announcement did not portend collegiality. Especially from Iorio.

Her anger was evident as she described Scott's decision as "terrible" and "wrong on so many levels."

Iorio, 51, is known to be direct in expressing her feelings about people privately, but she reserves public outbursts of the sort to about once a decade.

As a Hillsborough County commissioner 20 years ago, she once berated the then-administrator by saying she wouldn't put him in charge of balancing her checkbook shortly before moving to fire him. But she's better known as a voice of calm while serving as the county's supervisor of elections during the tumultuous 2000 presidential recounts.

Iorio said she suspects other elected officials felt the same way about Scott's decision but bit their tongues for fear of angering a new governor. Just the same, she said the fact that she leaves office next month after eight years as Tampa mayor was not the source of her own inhibition.

"Knowing myself as I do, I would have said this if I was in the middle of my term," she said. "To me, I've never been afraid to say something because I may make the governor unhappy."

But then it was on to business. "By the end of the day, after I had my initial response and I had talked to others, I said, 'Let's take the concerns of the governor and let's address them.' "

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Gov. Rick Scott's rejection of federal money for Florida's high-speed rail unleashed the un-Iorio 02/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 25, 2011 11:18pm]
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