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A new player enters the legal fray over Hillsborough's transit tax: All for Transportation

Members of the group All for Transportation deliver boxes of petitions to the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office in July. The group got the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot seeking a one-cent sales tax for transportation, and worked toward its passage. On Wednesday, lawyers for the group filed a motion asking to intervene in a lawsuit challenging the new tax. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Dec. 19, 2018

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County political committee that put a one-cent sales tax for transportation on the November ballot and helped get it passed is fighting a lawsuit challenging the tax.

The group, All for Transportation, filed a motion Wednesday seeking to intervene in the suit filed Dec. 4 by County Commissioner Stacy White, who opposed the tax. White asserts that a citizens committee set up to oversee how the tax revenue is spent leapfrogs the power of elected officials, in violation of the Florida Constitution. His lawsuit, which also argues the ballot language was misleading, asks a judge to overturn the new levy.

White named 10 defendants in the 28-page lawsuit filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court, but did not include All for Transportation, which spearheaded the campaign. Instead, he sued the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, the county clerk, the county transit agency and his fellow county commissioners.

All for Transportation attorney Brian Willis said in a press release Wednesday that the group is joining the suit to defend the people's vote.

"The people spoke loudly and clearly for no more delays on transportation funding," Willis said. "Today, we stand up to champion the will of the voters against a lawsuit that seeks to stop long-needed transportation improvements in Hillsborough County."

Willis and attorneys Ben H. Hill and Barry Richard are representing All for Transportation in the lawsuit. All for Transportation leaders declined to comment outside of the press release.

By filing a motion to intervene, the advocacy group is saying it has an interest in participating in the case and the right for its arguments to be heard, Hillsborough attorney Todd Foster said.

"Generally, by intervening, you're asserting that you have an interest in the matter that needs to be heard," Foster said. "Otherwise, if you're not a party in the case, the court won't listen to you. You're not invited or allowed to speak."

But if a judge approves the motion, All for Transportation would be equivalent to a party in the case and could file motions, make arguments and participate in the proceedings, Foster said.

White said his lawyers are objecting to the group intervening in the case on the first three counts, which focus on whether the charter amendment violates state law. White said he does not oppose them intervening on the fourth count, which asserts the ballot language — which All for Transportation wrote — is unlawful.

"Once they got the petition on the ballot and it went to the voters, their work is done," White said. "At this point in time, you have governments and agencies that are more than capable of determining whether or not we now have a legal article within our county charter."

White said he and his lawyers do not oppose the group filing an amicus brief on the first three counts, which would allow them to submit information to the court but not act as a full participant.

The lawsuit already faced some drama after it was randomly assigned to Circuit Court Judge Laurel Lee, wife of the tax's vocal critic Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa. Judge Lee recused herself Monday following a request from the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit attorney that said her marriage to Sen. Lee raised fears of an unfair hearing.

The tax is expected to raise about $302 million per year. The transit agency's share would be about $136 million.

The charter amendment won in every city and every county commission district, including White's. But White's lawsuit contends that a number of problems make the tax unenforceable.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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