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Tensions build regarding Hillsborough PTC as legislative delegation meeting approaches

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission (PTC) Chairman Victor Crist says that Jeff Brandes‘ recent inquiry on whether the PTC should be allowed to hire lobbyists was simply a ploy “to try to stir the pot” in advance of next week’s Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation meeting.

“This is a publicity stunt by Sen. Brandes to stir the pot before the delegation meets so he can waive his hands in the air and go, ‘Oh look, here we go again, there’s another problem with the PTC,'” Crist said on Thursday night. “Well you know what? If this was an issue now, why wasn’t it an issue nine months ago? Or four months ago? Or three months ago? Just two weeks before their meeting?”

On Thursday, the Florida Attorney General’s office essentially punted on the request by Brandes to provide a legal opinion on whether the agency should be allowed to hire a lobbyist, putting the issue back into the hands of the PTC.

“This is not a matter that the Attorney General may presently comment on,” Assistant Attorney General Ellen B. Gwynne wrote to Brandes, writing that the remedy would be for the PTC itself to decide on whether they should hire a lobbyist.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to determine how that vote will end up. The PTC earlier this year approved funding the lobbying firm of Corcoran and Johnston at $120,000.

“That’s like letting my children decide whether what they’ve done is right or wrong,” quipped Brandes on Thursday night. “This thing gets more bizarre by the moment.”

The St. Petersburg based legislator says the statute that the AG’s office is basing their opinion on is flawed, and may need to be reviewed by the Legislature. “Only the special district can ask whether the special district has a certain power?” he asked incredulously.

The Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission is a special district created by the Legislature. Other special districts in the region include the Tampa/Hillsborough Expressway Authority, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, and the Tampa Sports Authority.

None of them have been in the crosshairs of some legislators like the PTC has been, however. The PTC regulates taxicabs, limousines and companies like Uber and Lyft, which the state calls Transportation Network Companies (TNC). The agency had been enforcing citations against Uber and Lyft drivers since they began operating in the county in the spring of 2014 (though they have stopped doing that several months ago). In the summer of 2012, the agency stopped Uber Black from operating during the Republican National Convention because of their $50 minimum fare requirement for such rides. Those moves have alienated state lawmakers like Brandes and Jamie Grant.

When the Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation meets this coming Tuesday at the Amalie Arena, among the bills they will be asked to vote up or down on include stripping the agency of having any authority over ride-sharing companies like Uber & Lyft. Another bill would call for the outright elimination of the agency. Both are sponsored by Grant in the House and Brandes in the state Senate.

After Fox-13 reported last month about the PTC’s use of a lobbyist, Brandes reacted by calling on Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office to provide an opinion on the legality of such an act.

The PTC claims it is perfectly fine, and on Thursday Hillsborough County Attorney Chip Fletcher wrote that Brandes’ request for an opinion “cannot be considered in a vacuum,” since there approximately 1,026 so-called “special districts” created by the Legislature throughout the state, such as the Aviation Authority and Expressway Authority. All hire lobbyists.

Brandes says he was “flummoxed” by that legal argument.

“I thought the Chip Fletcher letter was amazing,” he says. “There might be illegal activity going on, but there’s a lot of illegal activity going on therefore you should let it go — that’s how I read the paragraph.”

Fletcher also noted that the PTC does not rely on taxpayer funds to operate, and none were used in the hiring of Corcoran and Johnston.

Hillsborough Commissioner and PTC Chair Victor Crist says that the AG’s opinion — which he said wouldn’t be binding if it had ruled against the PTC — was a total rebuke to Brandes.

“He obviously overstepped his authority,” he said. “He obviously didn’t understand the statutes he was reading, he didn’t consult with anybody in advance to find out what would be the appropriate thing to do here and he didn’t realize that at the end of the day, he would be screwing every single airport, every single port, every single expressway authority, every single sports authority across the entire state of Florida, and all their boards, and all their boards of directors and all their big campaign donors. That’s the truth of it.”

Brandes says Crist’s comments shows a “desperation to maintain control over small businesses.”

And he said he looked forward to Tuesday’s meeting. “I want to ask him if he can handle the truth.”

The escalation in rhetoric may indicate that the bonhomie that the two shared after a dinner back in September has been washed away. After that evening at Shula’s Steakhouse in Tampa, Crist said that the two found a lot of common ground.

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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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