Pinellas transit advocates look on as Hillsborough ballot draws fire

Published Sep. 26, 2015

When the Greenlight Pinellas referendum suffered a crushing loss last fall, hopes for a transportation plan that could connect Tampa Bay shifted to Hillsborough County.

Now, as that county's efforts flounder with the Go Hillsborough initiative, transit supporters in Pinellas are watching with chagrin — and an unsettling sense of deja vu.

Hillsborough commissioners last week questioned whether they will place a referendum on the ballot at all.

"It's very troubling because these are very large projects that really are for the future of our region," said Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long. "They need to hurry up, learn their lesson and keep on moving."

Persuading voters to tax themselves for transportation improvements is never easy.

Tampa Bay knows. Hillsborough voters overwhelmingly defeated a transit referendum in 2010. Four years later, Pinellas voters rejected another transit referendum.

Each loss took time and money.

To promote ballot referendums, elected officials and community leaders seek public input, craft a plan and make a pitch to voters, all the while trying to avoid self-defeating missteps and controversies.

Both counties have shown this past year that they are incapable of steering clear of the pitfalls.

"When there are other distractions that take the focus away from (the referendum), it makes it more difficult," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who served as chairman of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board during the Greenlight campaign.

Greenlight, which would have raised the county sales tax by a cent to expand bus service and build a major light rail line, had a number of distractions.

In early 2014, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and other Greenlight opponents accused PSTA of spending $800,000 of taxpayer money in advocating for the proposal. PSTA said the money went for educational outreach materials to offer voters information about the proposal, which is legal under state law.

The biggest controversy came when PSTA was forced to return $354,000 from the Department of Homeland Security. Rather than stressing antiterrorism and security efforts, per grant requirements, the commercials touted PSTA and featured the Greenlight Pinellas logo and web address.

Emails later showed PSTA CEO Brad Miller dismissed the concerns of at least one staffer who worried about how the grant was being spent. Critics demanded Miller's resignation or termination, but the PSTA board stuck by Miller.

"My advice (for Hillsborough) would be to focus on how this affects our community," Miller said. "And just know it's very, very difficult."

• • •

What really troubles transit advocates in Pinellas is that Hillsborough might not even get the chance to try.

Hillsborough County leaders are facing questions from a WTSP 10News report over whether engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff was legally awarded a $1.35 million contract to conduct public outreach for the Go Hillsborough transportation initiative.

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The latest blow came Monday, when County Administrator Mike Merrill asked Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee to investigate the awarding of that contract. Merrill believes an inquiry by the sheriff is the best way to restore public confidence.

Merrill, the county attorney and the county internal auditor have said that the contract was legally awarded to Parsons Brinckerhoff, which went through a competitive bid process in 2012 to win the right to do engineering work for Hillsborough. But opponents of Go Hillsborough contend the process skirted open government rules.

However, several commissioners already wavering on a sales tax increase told the Times last week that they have doubts the plan can recover.

The delay threatens an already tight timetable. The Pinellas commission voted in December 2013 to put Greenlight on the 2014 November ballot. Greenlight boosters said they wished they had more time to talk to more voters, especially in more conservative, car-centric North Pinellas.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is still optimistic, attributing recent problems to antitransit activists seizing on the same kind of "petty accusations" that derailed Greenlight Pinellas.

"You can put all the sand in the gears that you want," he said, but an underperforming transportation network "is our everyday reality, and we've got to find a way to deal with it."

Hillsborough officials should have learned from the 2010 result there and last year's vote in Pinellas, said Barb Haselden, who led the anti-Greenlight group No Tax for Tracks.

"I think once again it's a corrupt process of cronyism amongst the ruling class and their buddies," Haselden said. "I just hope all of this pressure and all of this transparency that's coming out is going to deter the (Hillsborough) County Commission from putting it on the ballot for fear of a backlash from the community."

Contact Tony Marrero or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.