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  1. Transportation

Go Hillsborough's foes, friends finally agree: They're upset with county transportation plan

TAMPA — Looks like advocates and opponents of Hillsborough County's stalled transportation plan have finally found common ground:

They're all furious.

Critics have questioned the Go Hillsborough initiative since Parsons Brinckerhoff was first brought on as a consulting firm last fall. While the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigates the selection of the firm, the opposition keeps hurling allegations that the process has been riddled with cronyism and back-door dealings.

Members of the Hillsborough County Tea Party say that even if the sheriff clears the county of any wrongdoing, that probably won't assuage their growing list of concerns.

"I won't be satisfied if that's what happens," said tea party activist Ken Roberts. "I don't question (the sheriff's) personal integrity … but these people all work for the county, and I think it calls into question their ability to render an unbiased opinion."

Supporters of a transportation sales tax focused their ire on the Hillsborough County Commission itself. Connect Tampa Bay executive director Kevin Thurman, a transit advocate, said it's time for commissioners to stop playing defense and to show some leadership in addressing the county's transportation needs.

"Commissioners need to take responsibility for going out to the public and explaining that nothing has gone wrong," Thurman said, "and this plan will make their lives better."

Others, like Tampa Bay Sierra Club chairman Kent Bailey, aren't concerned with the allegations that have dominated the transportation conversation. Instead, the environmental activist would like to see the focus return to the plan itself.

That's because after three years of planning and four weeks of controversy, Hillsborough County has yet to finalize a transportation plan to show voters. That plan is due to be made public on Nov. 5.

"It's really disappointing to see Go Hillsborough running into such extreme difficulty," Bailey said. "Our primary concern is with the product of the process."

• • •

Criticism levied at Go Hillsborough started almost immediately after the initiative was announced last fall. The plan was to conduct public outreach meetings to measure support for a sales tax that could fund transportation improvements and identify specific projects.

Tea party members and anti-rail activists, many of whom worked to defeat similar referendums in Hillsborough in 2010 and in Pinellas in 2014, called into question the legality of the Parsons contract and the integrity of the procurement process.

Hillsborough County Tea Party co-founder Sharon Calvert said the sheriff's investigation is "a year too late." Calvert and her allies have not been content with previous attempts by the county to answer their questions.

"I went to the county clerk and I got no satisfaction," Roberts said. "Same with the county attorney. I got a self-serving investigation. What other recourse do I have?"

Calvert wants to see an investigation that goes back to at least 2011 and that examines all forms of communications, including texts; that scrutinizes the entire Competitive Consultants Negotiations Act, the Florida statute used to select Parsons; that reviews the decision to have the sheriff lead the inquiry instead of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement; and that accounts for every cent of spending during the process.

Even then, Calvert said, she isn't sure if an independent investigation would satisfy her. "I don't know," she said. "I don't know what would be enough."

• • •

The opposition's allegations have seemed to paralyze a County Commission tasked with deciding whether to put a sales tax on the 2016 ballot.

"We don't have anyone worthy of being called a leader on that commission right now," said Thurman, a Democratic media consultant. "They need to show the public they care about this issue … but if they're afraid of a vocal and wealthy insider minority within the Republican Party, then we might be stuck."

County Administrator Mike Merrill said part of the problem stems from the ease with which opponents can organize, while backers — who range from homeowner associations to chambers of commerce to concerned citizens — lack a unified voice.

"What they really need to do is let commissioners know that this is very important to them," Merrill said. "Because, mostly, all the board is hearing from mostly is this small band of folks that have been hammering away."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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