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Hillsborough County now using elections officials to safeguard public comments on transit effort

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Score one for Sharon Calvert and the critics of Hillsborough County’s public information campaign that could lead to a transit tax referendum on the ballot a year from this November.

In what is being described as an unprecedented move, the county is using members of the Supervisor of Elections (SOE) office to safeguard the written comments made by the public at one of the numerous public meetings being held over the next few months.

What’s at stake is the possibility of the county government placing a referendum next year based on what they hear from the community, which could include a light-rail component. The Hillsborough County Policy Leadership Group (PLG) has been meeting for the past year and a half to develop such a plan, and they authorized the county to spend $900,000 last year on a transportation consultant to help lead the outreach effort.

Besides the lack of trust in local government on transit (which was exacerbated last year by Pinellas County officials being busted for misusing government funds to pay for ads promoting the Greenlight Pinellas initiative), critics seized on comments made last month by George Walton from Parsons Brinckerhoff, the group the county is paying handsomely to lead the outreach effort.

Walton acknowledged that objectionable comments (such as those that are considered racist or obscene) would be removed from the website, though they could still be retrievable.  That prompted Commissioner Al Higginbotham to ask whether or not there was a “fail safe” method in place to ensure that comments ruled to be out of bounds would still be captured. “How are we going to reassure the public?” he asked at the PLG’s February 12 meeting.

That led to County Administrator Mike Merrill to then agree to use officials from the SOE’s office to safeguard public comments made at the various meetings going on throughout the county scheduled to run into late May. That prompted County Commissioner Ken Hagan today to say that was a bit “extreme” and “beyond absurd, personally.”

Merrill said it had nothing to do with a lack of trust of county staff who would be the ones normally to manage the comments, but was only being done out of an abundance of transparency concerns. “To miss one last step in the audit process would have not put us in a good position,” he said, adding that the SOE staffers are not being disruptive at the public meetings, and were simply adding an additional level of integrity to the system.

“I’m sorry if it seems over the top, but it was my judgement call. If you think I’m wrong, we can reverse that,” Merrill said, sounding defensive.

Hagan followed up with what was anyone afraid of?

Merrill said he didn’t want somebody to call into question “for unreasonable reasons” the final work product of the outreach effort. “We know how these things go. If people can’t assail the product, they assail the process.” He said the process was too important to risk such perceptions.

Hagan said in his 12 years plus on the BOCC, he’d never seen such added protections about the integrity for any other action that called for public comment.

Other Commissioners agreed with him, but they didn’t dare vote against the measure. “Commissioner Hagan’s comments are right on,” Chair Sandy Murman said. “It’s government. Somebody’s always going to be out there not agreeing with us.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Connect Tampa Bay transit advocate Kevin Thurman lambasted the move.

“This creates very little sense, and seems to be bureaucracy run amok and multiagency confusion,” he said, warning of a dangerous precedent. “It seems to us that outside pressure and concern about conspiracy theories are beginning to influence decision making, instead of focusing on what’s really important: discussing transportation, and making sure that our economy grows.”

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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