Although there was already a 94-page investigation conducted by Hillsborough County’s internal auditor earlier this year that gave the thumbs up to the county’s contracting of the Go Hillsborough public outreach program with engineering consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff, the Board of County Commission today voted to have internal auditor Peggy Caskey conduct another investigation immediately.
The motion by Commissioner Kevin Beckner came two days after a report by WTSP-Channel 10 reporter Noah Pransky that investigated local public relations and communications guru Beth Leytham, and her involvement as a subcontractor for the Go Hillsborough campaign. Leytham is a close ally of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and County Commissioners Ken Hagan and Sandy Murman.
Beckner invoked the specter of Greenlight Pinellas in calling for an investigation. That was the 2014 transit tax initiative in Pinellas County that, like the Go Hillsborough effort, was heavily scrutinized by Tea Party groups. In the case of Greenlight, Pinellas officials helped doom their own cause because of self-inflicted errors, such as when Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) head Brad Miller was forced to return Homeland Security money to the federal government after a federal investigation found that the money was inappropriately used for pro-Greenlight ads.
“This to me is creating a place of deja vu that Pinellas went through where they were attacking the integrity and trust of the process and the organization,” Beckner said. “Go Hillsborough is going to be such an important project and initiative in the future of our community, and we cannot afford to lose this because of a question of trust or integrity.”
Nearly every commissioner who spoke after Beckner agreed with his concerns.
“Parsons is a distraction and is going to hurt this effort,” Al Higginbotham said, adding that the perception among some in the community was that the 2010 Hillsborough transportation tax was “cooked up in a room with closed doors” with a lack of public input. He said that this new effort could only work if there was complete transparency in how the county government introduced it.
That led to Commission Chair Sandy Murman to say that part of the investigation should look at how the county’s procurement processes work with regard to subcontractors. Leytham was hired by Parsons as a subcontractor to work on the Go Hillsborough public outreach effort. Sounding troubled, Murman said the current atmosphere around the Go Hillsborough effort had left a “dark cloud” over the county.
Murman then pivoted to complaining about the number of public meetings that have been taking place this summer — meetings that she and the rest of the Policy Leadership Group (which consists of all seven county commissioners as well as the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City) agreed to earlier this summer. There will be a total of 54 public outreach meetings in all when they conclude at the end of this month. The meetings are designed to inform the community about what is actually in the transportation plan currently. The meetings have also allowed the public the opportunity to weigh in on whether the proposed sales tax should be a half-percent or one percent when commissioners vote on ballot language later this year.
“I haven’t heard very positive things and that’s why I don’t like where the second round (of meetings) has gone, and I think it’s taking us down a much more negative path for some reason,” said Murman. “The information about the plan is not getting out to the community, and I’m not sure the second round is actually doing that.” She then suggested that the public meetings being hosted by Parsons Brinckerhoff be canceled.
But County Administrator Mike Merrill bristled at the criticism. He acknowledged that the attendance at the Go Hillsborough meetings that have been conducted in public libraries throughout the sprawling county have not been high in attendance, but he said the message is getting out. “If you’re asking my opinion, I think it would be a mistake to stop it. We told the public we were going to spend time with them. For me it doesn’t matter whether there’s five people in the meeting or 50. Those five people who show up invest their time, they participate, we’ve already publicized the meetings.”
However, Commissioner Les Miller didn’t sound as intimidated as his colleagues about the new concerns, saying that there will also be some group critical of a transportation tax. “Let’s quit playing games about what people are saying out there,” he said. “Let’s do what we have to do. Keep our eye on the prize, and go forward. We’ve already advertised those meetings. Let’s continue to have those meetings.”
Miller said if Tampa and Hillsborough County want to compete with other major cities, they needed to get behind the transportation tax. The proposed half-cent tax would generate an estimated $117.5 million per year, or about $3.5 billion over its proposed 30-year life. The money would go primarily for road repair, construction, an expanded bus fleet and other transit features.
Later in the day Hillsborough County communications officials released a statement indicating that County Audit Department actually performed three reviews related to the Parsons Brinckerhoff procurement and related contract deliverables. In all cases, the Audit Team did not identify “any material concerns during these reviews.”
The Parsons contract is scheduled to run out at the end of October. The Policy Leadership Group is scheduled to hear about the final product in the proposed transportation tax in November, with the Board of County Commission scheduled to vote on whether to put the measure on the 2016 ballot in December.