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Transit tax foe to Pinellas County commission: Reprimand or fire county administrator — or else

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Two anti-transit-tax activists fired off emails to Pinellas commissioners this week demanding that County Administrator Mark Woodard be disciplined for discussions he held with Mike Merrill, the Hillsborough county administrator.

They were reacting to a report in the Tampa Bay Times that Woodard had met with Merrill to discuss, among other things, regional transportation issues.

According to the May 3 article, the two had discussed simultaneously asking voters in both counties to approve a half-cent sales tax to pay for transportation improvements. Some of those improvements would link Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Voters in Pinellas overwhelmingly turned down such a proposal, known as Greenlight Pinellas, in 2014. Just a week ago, Hillsborough commissioners declined to put a similar proposal on the upcoming ballot.

“Mr. Woodard has stepped out of line and out of the scope of his job description,” Barbara Haselden wrote in a May 4 email to commissioners and Woodard. “Mr. Woodard is an EMPLOYEE (sic) serving at the pleasure of the people. I call for his resignation immediately for going to the newspaper and attempting to rally another sales tax increase. … He needs to leave our county employment now.”

Haselden’s comments were echoed in an email from Tom Rask:

“Please tell me when it became the board position to do what Mr. Woodard proposes. Please consider my question a public records request for records reflecting the adoption of that very board position.

“If this isn’t the board’s position, then you must rein in such imperious behavior by an unelected official by either publicly reprimanding Mr. Woodard, or firing him. You should also vote on a proclamation stating that it is NOT (sic) to (sic) board’s position to seek another sales tax hike. Then issue a press release attaching the proclamation.”

Rask went a step further, saying he would take action should commissioners not heed his demands:

“You do as you want, but if you do not take these steps, then expect 200,000 emails to be sent to county residents (perhaps from one of your political opponents) stating that it is your position to seek another sales tax hike. … The names of those commissioners who refuse to renounce the ‘let’s seek a sales tax hike’ position will inevitably be hog-tied to the wagon wheel called ‘tax hike.’”

Both Haselden and Rask had campaigned against Greenlight Pinellas.

County Commissioner Karen Seel responded to Rask in her own email, saying, “I was shocked to hear this. We have not had any discussions amongst the County Commission about this. I intend on bringing this up on Tuesday, May 10, 2016, under county commission miscellaneous.”

Woodard declined to comment Thursday, saying what happens next is the commission’s decision.

But at least three of the seven commissioners appeared less than impressed by Haselden’s and Rask’s comments.

“I refuse to have a reaction,” Pat Gerard said.

Ken Welch said he stands behind Woodard “100 percent.”

“I’m fully in confident in our county administrator,” Welch said. “Consider the source. I have no intention whatsoever in asking Mark to step down.”

Janet Long said she would have been surprised had Woodard not had conversations with other nearby officials about transportation and other regional issues. Holding such conversations and building relationships is part of the job, she said.

Long was equally unperturbed that the two administrators might have tossed around ideas about funding. Commission members have told him to explore all avenues of funding for all projects and discussions about funding transportation improvements would “of course” be a normal part of any discussion. Just because Woodard holds discussions, she said, doesn’t mean they’ll go anywhere.

“He doesn’t set policy,” Long said. “If he wants to have a discussion about that, I’m fine with it. It doesn’t mean the policymakers will do it.”

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