Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

Carlton: Watching political sausage get made in Hillsborough County

Campaign checks flow to sitting county commissioners from people who stand to benefit greatly from their upcoming vote.

Lobbyists paid to sway commissioners often can't be bothered to properly sign in or state their business so the public has a record of who met with whom — and why.

And everyone's on pins and needles awaiting a Sheriff's Office report on allegations of county cronyism in the handing out of a big contract.

It's not pretty, seeing how political sausage gets made. These days, so much shrapnel is flying at County Center you would not be surprised to see Hillsborough commissioners showing up in protective gear.

Any day now we could see the sheriff's findings about the awarding of a contract for Go Hillsborough — the badly needed transportation plan that may have been mortally wounded in this mess. In the fallout, we got a glimpse of a longtime and embarrassing lack of accountability in keeping records of lobbyists who show up to woo politicians and county staffers.

And for more distasteful making of the aforementioned sausage, there's the case of the Carrollwood apartments.

The Times' Steve Contorno and Anthony Cormier recently reported on plans for 20 apartments next to homes on a quiet street in Carrollwood. Neighbors were opposed. And the proposal got a big thumbs-down from the city-county planning board that advises commissioners. A staff report from that board called it an "intrusion" creating "compatibility concerns" for the neighborhood.

Within weeks of that no vote, campaign checks totalling $11,200 from the two doctors hoping to build the apartments, their companies, lobbyist and associates began to flow to three commissioners up for election: Les Miller, Sandy Murman and Kevin Beckner. Murman got checks three days before the commission gave the project its unanimous approval. Beckner got checks within two weeks after.

The three adamantly insist those contributions had absolutely nothing to do with their votes for a project they saw as a good fit. Miller emphasized it isn't illegal, though you hope for a higher bar.

Because here's the thing: Had the timing of those checks been different, had they not come in after the no recommendation, had anyone considered at least the potential for the appearance of impropriety — wouldn't we all feel a lot better about the process?

Hey, politicos will tell you, it's how the world works. Deal.

Word is that nothing criminal was found in that soon-to-go-public investigation by the Sheriff's Office regarding Go Hillsborough. Expect to see some squirm-worthy moments for elected officials anyway.

If you are not completely disheartened, here's an upside: In the fallout, commissioners scrambled to put teeth in rules requiring lobbyists to sign in to see them. A Times review found they did not properly register more than a third of the time, sometimes not giving a name and more often leaving blank the most interesting piece of information of all: the reason they were there. No one signed in as Daffy Duck, but they may as well have.

And that record is how you, the public, get to know which powerful lobbyist was pushing what project to which politicians. Or not, if Mickey Mouse stops by.

It's notable that the new rules impose potential fines and suspensions on lobbyists but put no burden on commissioners themselves — interesting, since I don't recall us electing lobbyists to office. And so goes the sausagemaking.

Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]

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