Editorial: Clear the air on Hillsborough transit contract

Residents attend a Go Hillsborough meeting in May in Town ’N Country. The process to develop a transportation plan is on hold.
Residents attend a Go Hillsborough meeting in May in Town ’N Country. The process to develop a transportation plan is on hold.
Published Sep. 22, 2015

The Go Hillsborough transit initiative is seriously off track, derailed by questions about cozy relationships and expensive consultant contracts. Now county officials need to quickly establish the facts and clear the air before this expensive effort to bolster public support for investing in transportation becomes the reason to kill it.

County Administrator Mike Merrill on Monday called on Sheriff David Gee to investigate how engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff won a $1.35 million contract to gauge public support for a proposed sales tax increase to fund transportation improvements. Officials from Hillsborough and the county's three cities, including Tampa, have worked since 2013 on a plan to bring a transit tax to the voters on the 2016 ballot. Merrill made the request days after a report by WTSP 10News questioned whether the deal stemmed from the company's hiring of Tampa public relations consultant Beth Leytham, who has strong political ties to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, county Commissioner Ken Hagan and others.

Merrill said that "allegations in the media have challenged the integrity of the process," and he asked the sheriff to examine the Parsons Brinckerhoff contract to determine if it broke any state laws, county contracting policies or state conflict-of-ethics rules. Merrill also suspended any work and payments to the company and its subcontractors pending the outcome of the inquiry. Under its contract, Parsons Brinckerhoff is facilitating a series of public meetings across Hillsborough to explain what types of road, mass transit and other projects could be financed by a 1-cent or half-cent sales tax surcharge.

A fresh look should help clear the air. Parsons Brinckerhoff won the job after first competing in 2011 with 52 other companies for one of 10 umbrella contracts to provide engineering services. Those contracts, allowed under Florida law, allow governments to create a short list of qualified providers to save time from having to seek individual bids whenever they want to hire a consultant.

A group of city and county elected officials overseeing Go Hillsborough directed Merrill in August 2014 to hire a company with transportation experience to help with the transit plan. In September 2014, county staff selected Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of four companies already preapproved to provide those services. The company hired Leytham in November 2014. She is to be paid $187,000.

Hillsborough's county auditor examined the contract this year and dismissed allegations that the contract was a "no-bid award," pointing out the procurement was discussed and approved in public meetings. The auditors found "no evidence" that "the public was excluded," and they found that the contract complied with state law and local contracting policies.

The sheriff could bring some clarity to the facts of the case. The larger question is how the specter of politics will hang over the effort, as critics will use an investigation by the top local law enforcement agency to put Go Hillsborough under a cloud.

The county could have handled the contract with greater caution, especially given the profile of Go Hillsborough, one of the most ambitious civic undertakings in the county in two decades. Leytham's role in providing unpaid advice to Buckhorn, Hagan and others over the years also reflects the cozy intersection that still exists in Hillsborough between politics and public business.

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The sheriff needs to deliver a thorough examination and a clear set of findings in a timely manner. County commissioners were expected to decide this fall whether to put Go Hillsborough on the ballot; now they're talking about a criminal inquiry instead of specific road and mass transit projects that could transform the region over the next 30 years. It's time to clear up the allegations surrounding the contract and hold anyone who violated the rules accountable — or confirm that the contracts were handled correctly and refocus the public conversation on the enormous transit issues facing Tampa Bay.