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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Bumpy start for transit campaign

The political campaign for the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum already has jumped the track. Its most visible leader and its presumed campaign consultant are gone, and it made a serious error in organizing itself so that its financial contributors can be kept secret. There is plenty of time for transit advocates to reorganize and start fresh, but business and community leaders have to create a smart grass roots campaign that is highly visible and entirely open about its finances for the November referendum to be successful.
Published Feb. 24, 2014

The political campaign for the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum already has jumped the track. Its most visible leader and its presumed campaign consultant are gone, and it made a serious error in organizing itself so that its financial contributors can be kept secret. There is plenty of time for transit advocates to reorganize and start fresh, but business and community leaders have to create a smart grass-roots campaign that is highly visible and entirely open about its finances for the November referendum to be successful.

The Yes for Greenlight campaign was launched less than three weeks ago to sell voters on the referendum that calls for a 1-cent sales tax increase to pay for significantly expanded bus service and a new rail system. It immediately ran into trouble, as tea party opponents contended former Pinellas County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan could not both run the political campaign and serve as chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, a public agency.

In truth, Duncan's dual role was neither illegal nor unethical, and he would have been a capable leader of the political campaign. TBARTA, lacking the money and legal authority to fund and build the transit system the region needs, is not the force it could be in a perfect world. But Greenlight supporters should have anticipated the attacks on Duncan, and his resignation removes an unnecessary distraction.

The equally abrupt departure of Yes for Greenlight's expected consultant, Tucker Hall, is more evidence of an unfortunate false start. Critics complained the firm that had worked on Greenlight for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority should not be working now for the political committee. The broader reality is that a political committee needs an experienced political consultant, not a public relations firm, to target voters, build momentum and ensure supporters turn out in November.

The fallout from the departures of Duncan and the expected consultant will be short-lived if the political committee makes thoughtful decisions about identifying the public faces of the campaign and hiring the right professionals to develop and implement the strategy. The more troubling issue is the committee's ability to keep its donors secret. The committee is organized as a tax-exempt advocacy group, a 501(c)(4), which has become a common vehicle for third-party groups to engage in politics while hiding the source of their money.

Duncan says he intended to voluntarily release the names of contributors. Chris Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and a leader of Yes for Greenlight, said the committee will review its structure. Good. The committee's contributors should be proud to have their names attached to such an important countywide initiative that would shape Pinellas for generations. To hide the names of donors and the amounts they contribute would erode public confidence. It also would fuel the paranoia of the tea party crowd that already sees the transit referendum as a government conspiracy to take away everyone's car and force everyone to live in a high-rise condo.

Yes for Greenlight should reorganize as a different type of political committee that is legally required to disclose its donors, appoint a broad-based leadership team — and stop being an easy target for transit opponents.

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