Dear Readers,

The coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread disruption to the lives of everyone in Tampa Bay and to so many businesses in our community. Here at the Tampa Bay Times, we continue to provide free, up-to-date information at as a public service. But we need your help. Please consider supporting us by subscribing or donating, and by sharing our work. Thank you.

  1. News

Hillsborough’s lobbying rules get tweaked

Politico Ed Turanchik is warned for lobbying about the MacDill ferry after his status as a consultant ended.
Ed Turanchik is a lawyer and former Hillsborough County commissioner. [Times (2016)]

TAMPA — Hillsborough County was one of the first local governments in the nation to create its own lobbying ordinance — a measure meant to protect the public’s right to know when elected officials interact with people paid to influence them.

But county officials say a loophole in that lobbying ordinance had in recent months afforded prominent politico Ed Turanchik access to county commissioners that fell outside rules requiring public oversight — and later, got him an official warning from the county attorney’s office.

Now, the county has adopted tighter restrictions to prevent other lobbyists from following in Turnanchik’s footsteps, Lobbyist Registration Manager Dave Couvertier said. It comes after the county received complaints that Turanchik — a lawyer, former county commissioner and two-time mayoral candidate — had not followed rules that require lobbyists to report contacts with public officials when he was representing a proposed ferry service between the south county suburbs and MacDill Air Force Base.

But as it turned out, the county’s own rules allowed Turanchik that access because he was granted status as a “consultant” to the project.

That changed, however, after the county commission tanked the ferry proposal.

Without the contract, Turanchik’s continued communications with commissioners — including hosting elected officials on a sunset ferry cruise and texting a commissioner during meetings — were no longer defined as “consulting.” Instead, they were unregistered instances of lobbying that required the reprimand, Couvertier said. It was only the third such warning in county history.

A series of formal complaints sent to Couvertier’s office from transportation activist Kevin Thurman throughout 2019 argued that Turanchik had spent the previous five years lobbying on behalf of those involved in the proposed commuter ferry project without following county ordinances.

Under the rules, lobbyists are required to register with the county attorney’s office every year. And any efforts to lobby a commissioner on a “current or future county issue" — oral, written, or electronic — must be logged in a public database available online.

But Couvertier found that Turanchik’s role in the “public private partnership agreement” for the ferry service didn’t meet the definition of lobbying so long as the project was active.

That’s because Turanchik was hired not as a lobbyist but as a consultant by the county’s private partners for the project — HMS Ferries and South Swell Development Group, LLC. (Since 2016, Turanchik has also represented HMS in its contract for the winter ferry service between the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg, a project he’s championed since its conception in 2011.)

Turanchik had long been a registered lobbyist with Hillsborough County, but both he and Couvertier agreed that communications with commissioners involving the MacDill project were protected by his status as a consultant.

Couvertier determined in 2017 that Turanchik’s discussions with commissioners about details like possible ferry terminal sites was consultancy and need not be reported as lobbying. But if those talks ever touched on the terms of the county’s contract, Couvertier specified that Turanchik had to comply with lobbying rules.

That directive was put to the test when commissioners voted to scrap that contract — first in November 2018 and again in August, when the commission not only cancelled it but also kicked it to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, the county bus service.

Records show Turanchik pushed commissioners to resurrect the cancelled project — an act considered to be lobbying since he was no longer consulting on an active contract, Couvertier later determined. Turanchik was not a registered lobbyist at the time the communications took place, and none of the exchanges were recorded on the county’s lobbying portal.

His efforts took the form of texts, phone calls, face-to-face meetings and, for three commissioners, a free sunset ferry cruise of Tampa Bay.

Related: RELATED: Hillsborough commission pulls out of MacDill ferry plans, citing new transit sales tax hike

Turanchik maintains he has always followed Couvertier’s guidance about his role as consultant. He said commissioners confused the situation by pulling the plug on the ferry contract without giving his clients notice — twice.

“We had been operating under prior written guidance from Dave that exempted meetings with county commissioners and covered staff in connection with matters related to performance of the ferry partnership agreement,” Turanchik said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. “Two separate incidents of unilateral, unnoticed, illegal and bad-faith contract terminations by the county commission had confounded and confused the written guidance and its application ... Throw in clear procedural due process violations by the county commission of my clients’ rights and things became even more muddled on my end.”

Couvertier and the county attorney’s office determined that Turanchik’s first violation occurred during a November 2018 county commission meeting in which he sent text messages to Commissioner Pat Kemp while she was on the dais. County ordinances expressly forbid lobbyists from communicating electronically with commissioners during those meetings.

Commissioner Pat Kemp. [Courtesy of Pat Kemp]

In the days that followed, Turanchik also arranged a meeting with Commissioner Stacy White at the Bloomingdale Avenue Dunkin Donuts. He sent multiple text messages to Commissioner Sandy Murman requesting that she “write a memo today asking for this to be back on the board’s agenda for reconsideration."

Murman and White voted along with Kemp and newly-elected commissioners Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith to reinstate the ferry contract on Dec. 5, 2018. Commission Chairman Les Miller was the only dissenting vote. Commissioner Ken Hagan was absent.

But concern about the viability of the project — estimated to cost the county upward of $40 million — led the board on Aug. 7 to once again vote to pull the plug.

Related: RELATED: The agency that runs Hillsborough’s buses will also run its ferries

Just weeks later, during the board’s September 18 meeting, records show Turanchik again texted Kemp from the audience as she attempted to convince her fellow commissioners to change their minds and revive the ferry project for a second time.

While lobbyists are specifically forbidden from texting commissioners during official meetings, others are not. Turanchik argued that he was acting as a private citizen when he texted Kemp, but Couvertier later determined that the content of the message clearly constituted lobbying.

Another effort to revive the project came in October. Turanchik arranged for a boatload of ferry supporters including local officials and three county commissioners — Kemp, Smith and Overman — to take a sunset cruise of the proposed MacDill route aboard the Tampa-St. Petersburg CrossBay Ferry.

Throughout the trip, Turanchik urged those on board to join a grassroots campaign aimed at convincing the commission to take the MacDill ferry project back from the bus agency.

Couvertier began investigating Turanchik’s access to commissioners after a complaint was filed in January 2019 by Thurman, one of the leaders of All for Transportation. Turanchik was nearing the end of his second unsuccessful bid to become Tampa’s mayor and had been critical of the group’s transit tax referendum on the campaign trail.

Thurman cited 14 text messages, phone calls and unregistered meetings as possible violations. “It is really important to me that we have a county commission that follows the basic rules in front of them,” Thurman told the Times.

But most of those interactions happened while Turanchik worked as a protected consultant, Couvertier said.

Turanchik said the warning he was ultimately issued for the sunset cruise and other communications is not warranted. Since commissioners voted to refer the ferry project to the bus agency, Turanchik said, his subsequent activities should not be governed by the county’s lobbying ordinance.

He said he and Couvertier “reviewed this tortured history and amicably straightened things out as to the applicability of the lobbying ordinance, both retrospectively and prospectively.”

“I have re-registered as a lobbyist though not technically required to do so as I have no pending matters before the county commission.” Turanchik told the Times.

County officials are now rethinking whether they will allow future lobbyists to work as consultants on projects taken up by the commission.

“This was a unique situation here that probably will never happen again,” Couvertier said. “But ... we crossed that road and made a legal interpretation for what we determined was the best practice.”

Going forward, parties that contract with the county will be required to provide written justification for why retaining the services of a lobbyist is essential to the project. And lobbyists looking to work as consultants with the county will be scrutinized for possible or perceived conflicts of interest, Couvertier said.

“That way, if there are questions, we’ll have a transparent and clear paper trail,” Couvertier said.