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Pro transit group Connect Tampa Bay dissolves

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Two years after the one-cent transit tax known as Moving Hillsborough Forward bit the dust at the polls in November of 2010, a pro-transit group named Connect Tampa Bay was formed to restart discussions on expanding transit options in the Tampa Bay area, including light rail. Their efforts were pivotal in restarting the conversation about transportation in the county, which led nearly a year later to the formation of the Hillsborough County Policy Leadership Group, which would ultimately craft the Go Hillsborough plan, which is now on life support.

Connect Tampa Bay, however, is history, having officially dissolved on May 1. Founding member Kevin Thurman says the group decided in December to “start the process” of winding down the organization, voted in March to do so, and shut it down May 1.

He says the reason to do so was two-fold. One was that the he and two of his three founding partners were literally moving in different directions. Brian Willis is running for office this year, Brian Seel has moved to Northern California, and Thurman himself is starting graduate school in the fall. He also said that the discussion on transportation had changed into a purely political conversation at this point, and said that having a 501(c)(4) group is not the ideal vehicle to be involved in such a discussion.

“You have a 501(c)(4) which is designed to advocate,” Thurman said on Tuesday. “Well, clearly the commissioners aren’t listening to people…so obviously the attempts to do a bipartisan conversation with people about transportation was not something that our elected officials are interested in.”

Last month the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners voted 4-3 not to put the Go Hillsborough sales tax referendum on the November ballot. The measure called for increasing the sales tax by a half-cent for 30 years that would bring in $117 million annually to fund transportation projects in the county. Following that decision, the board voted last week to hold a second public hearing on the proposed tax, with the same half-cent tax going before the voters this fall, but only for 15 years. The board will hold a public hearing on the measure next month.

“I think we accomplished a ton,” Thurman says. “We got thousands of people involved in the transportation discussion, and we pushed transportation back to the forefront of the discussion.”

Thurman says one thing that they did not do was raise a lot of money. He says the group brought in less than $10,00 from individual donors in 2013, their first full year of existence. No donor gave more than $500, he adds.

The news of Connect Tampa Bay no longer existing was reported by Pinellas County activist Tom Rask‘s  Tampa Bay Guardian blog on Monday. Rask writes that Thurman was uncooperative in submitting tax returns to him. Thurman said on Tuesday that he mailed the forms, but said that “they are not typical 990 forms as he knows.”

Thurman also says that after the group was going through the process of dissolving, he was informed by an I.R.S. official that he no longer had to comply with Rask’s requests.

While no longer affiliated with Connect Tampa Bay, Thurman hasn’t given up his opinions on transit in the region. He’s decidedly against the newly proposed 15-year long referendum, and says the decision on moving transit forward in Tampa and Hillsborough should be led by citizens, and not politicians. He admits that it’s probably too late to craft such a citizen-led referendum in 2016 however.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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