The bumper stickers on the cars and pickups outside the Feather Sound Country Club offered the first clue about the group inside.
Ron Paul for president. Support state Rep. Larry Ahern and Pinellas County Commissioner Nancy Bostock, two of the county's most conservative Republican officeholders. "Fluoride: There is poison in the tap water." Pro oil drilling and anti-Obama.
Inside, Barbara Haselden from the South Pinellas 912 Patriots tea party group stood before an audience of about 60 last Sunday and opened the meeting about light rail. The St. Petersburg insurance company executive said elected officials from throughout Pinellas had been invited, but the only familiar faces I saw were county Commissioners Neil Brickfield and Norm Roche, who are also on the board of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. They are no fans of building light rail in Pinellas. They also are half of the Fluoride Four — the county commissioners who voted last year to ignore science and public health and remove fluoride from the county's drinking water.
Haselden called the meeting an "educational forum" about rail. Using a PowerPoint presentation with PSTA charts, she recounted the origins of the authority and how its property tax revenue rose with escalating property values and declined as values dropped. She described the proposal to ask voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax to expand bus service and build 24 miles of light rail from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater.
"I'm not trying to be negative,'' Haselden said at one point. "I'm trying to be factual.''
She talked of an overspending bus system that few residents use that now wants to raise taxes for a rail system nobody wants. It was not made clear that the bus system has record ridership despite cutting back service because of declining revenues. Or that the existing transit property tax would be eliminated if voters approved the 1-cent sales tax. Or that a significant amount of the money generated by the sales tax would be paid by tourists, not residents.
Haselden ended with a picture of a mother holding a young child waiting in cold weather at a bus stop. She said they were being used as pawns in the debate over the transit plan.
The featured speaker was Randal O'Toole from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. O'Toole travels the country railing against light rail and smart growth policies. He claims they are too expensive, don't work and don't have public support. His general theme: Government wants to take away your car and your house and make you ride rail and live in high-rises. His slide show included pictures of a coyote in an empty rail car and drab apartment buildings in East Germany.
Last week, Brickfield called to distinguish himself from the rail opponents who want to kill the Pinellas rail plan before there is a voter referendum. Brickfield is on the PSTA board, and he said he would vote as a county commissioner to put the transit plan on the ballot. He said he supports expanded bus service, and he said it is not true that he would never support a Pinellas rail plan despite his skepticism about the one on the table.
St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner, the chairman of the PSTA and a light rail supporter, skipped the Feather Sound meeting. He sees no reason to engage in a debate with rail opponents when a voter referendum on a transit sales tax hasn't even been scheduled. Danner said the transit plan continues to be refined and that there will be a coordinated effort to educate voters. The PSTA has hired the Tucker Hall public relations firm to develop a transit presentation, which Brickfield and Roche opposed.
It would be easy to write off 60 folks listening to rail opponents on a Sunday afternoon more than a year from any referendum. That would be a mistake.
These are the dedicated voters who elected conservatives in 2010 such as Roche to the County Commission and Ahern and Rep. Jeff Brandes to the Legislature. The St. Petersburg Republican lawmakers opposed legislation that would have required the PSTA property tax to be repealed if the voters approve the sales tax increase and the money is used for the project.
These are also the voters and legislators who persuaded Gov. Rick Scott to veto the bill. And Scott relies on voices like O'Toole and the Cato Institute to justify killing high-speed rail and growth management.
Second, the rail opponents are poisoning the Pinellas light rail debate before it starts. Haselden said her group has met with hundreds of businesses along the proposed rail route. A website and yard signs opposing the plan are already up.
Those who believe mass transit and smart growth are essential for Pinellas' future better start moving. Otherwise, this train could run off the tracks pretty fast.