TAMPA — If a transit advocate speaks at a government-sponsored public forum but none of the elected officials who make transportation decisions are in room to hear it, does he make a sound?
That's what several people who attended the first of a new round of public discussions about Hillsborough County's transportation needs left thinking after the town-hall-style meeting Tuesday night at County Center.
"I think a lot of people came here thinking this event was going to be something different," Brandon activist Mark Nash said. "We need our elected officials in this room."
More than 150 people showed up for the meeting, invited to provide their views on the county's transportation system and particularly how it can be used to spur economic development. The meeting is part of a larger effort by the county's seven commissioners, the mayors of its three cities and the chairwoman of its transit agency to examine the county's transportation needs.
But none of the elected officials were invited or showed, though several of them made it to a forum of business leaders two weeks ago.
Their absence Tuesday was intentional, said organizers, at least for the first of what will be monthly public forums held around the county in the next 16 or more months.
"What we're trying to get is feedback from people with different perspectives on different issues," said Eric Johnson, the county's director of strategic planning. "Otherwise, it would in effect be a public hearing for something that really wasn't far enough along the path for the public to be telling the commissioners what they should do."
The crowd filled the County Commission's chambers in downtown Tampa to capacity, with some forced into a spillover room. It was a decidedly pro public transportation audience, with many wearing "Try Transit" stickers, though several transit skeptics also participated.
The missed opportunity for elected officials was that the crowd included many people who don't typically show up to government meetings, though there certainly were regulars.
Consultant Herb Marlowe asked audience members to rank, one to five, how strongly they felt about five questions related to transportation. Then he called on people to explain.
Lawyer Laura Lawson, 42, of Seminole Heights had the laugh lines of the night when she acknowledged answering "three" to a statement asking how important transportation is in choosing a community in which to live.
"If transportation were important to me, I wouldn't live here," she said. With the continued reliance on cars over all other modes of transit, "it's like we got a bad haircut but we keep going back to the same barber."
Jennifer Winter, 22, a master's student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said it took her nearly 90 minutes to get from that campus to the public forum during rush hour. She recounted the ease of getting around Gainesville as an undergraduate at the University of Florida, thanks to reliable public transit, before returning home for post-graduate study.
"It was just a shock to come home again," Winter said. "One of my most valuable resources is my time."
But there were others in the audience who were eager to remind those who would listen that voters spoke three years ago by overwhelmingly voting down a proposed sales tax hike that would have paid for expanded transit, including rail.
Kevin Wright, 57, of Wesley Chapel carried a sign reading "Derail Light Rail." And he ripped into the business leaders who argued two weeks ago before elected officials that inefficient mass transit is a weakness for the Tampa Bay region.
"How many of these CEOs does it take to negate my vote?" he asked.