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Editorial: Hillsborough transportation board should reflect community

SKIP O'ROURKE   |   Times Mailers promoting a one-cent sales tax for Hillsborough County residents to fund transportation projects, which voters approved.
SKIP O'ROURKE | Times Mailers promoting a one-cent sales tax for Hillsborough County residents to fund transportation projects, which voters approved.
Published Nov. 21, 2018

One of the big selling points for Hillsborough voters in approving the countywide transportation tax in November was the provision creating an independent oversight board. With the tax set to generate $9 billion or more over the next 30 years, it's essential taxpayers can be assured money is appropriately spent. That's why the makeup of this committee is key, and why local officials should appoint board members with the appropriate skills who reflect the diversity of Hillsborough's 1.3 million residents.

The first two appointments to the 13-member committee were announced in recent days. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn selected former Tampa state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, and Hillsborough County Clerk of Court Pat Frank named retired Hillsborough County Chief Circuit Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. These are both strong appointments. Joyner was Tampa's first black female attorney and a pioneering civil rights activist. Menendez, a former federal prosecutor, rose to the top court post in his 31 years on the local judiciary. Both are serious and have demonstrated their commitment to public service. Their legal and government experience, knowledge of the community and professional integrity reflect the ideal of this appointment process.

In the coming months, city and county elected officials in Hillsborough will make the remaining appointments. The board's task is to certify that spending for roads, bridges, mass transit and other projects adheres to a formula that voters agreed to in the referendum. The committee must include certain experts in real estate, accounting and planning. But elected officials have broad discretion over the appointments. And as with every political process, there will be pressure from special interests, campaign contributors and associates and friends to appoint people with stronger connections than qualifications.

The approval of the transportation tax was transformative for the region, and the appointments to the board overseeing it need to be equally forward-looking. Though the specific projects being funded will be culled by local agencies, this committee will be a public stamp of approval to ensure the voters' intent is carried out. There's no place here for partisans, political hacks or those with little interest in creating a more modern, multi-modal transportation system throughout the county.

The committee should look like the county it represents. If that's the case, according to the U.S. Census, its 13 members should include seven females, at least three Hispanics and at least two African-Americans. The median age of the committee members should be 37. Two members should be aged 60 years or older, and two people should be living below the poverty line. For good measure, the group should include people who rent, ride the bus, or work or attend school at major destinations such as MacDill Air Force Base, West Shore and the University of South Florida.

This is a great opportunity to build a stronger consensus on what for decades has been a divisive community issue. A qualified and diverse oversight committee will reinforce public confidence in government, and it will set the 30-year tax on its strongest possible course.