Monday, May 2, 2016

Go Hillsborough's Private Campaign Collusion Behind the Green Curtain

As the Eye has repeatedly posted, the Go Hillsborough proposal was created through a crony and very flawed process resulting in a flawed plan (and a law enforcement investigation). But common sense (so lacking in politics today) did prevail last week. 

The county commissioners did the right thing and voted last Wednesday 4-3 NO. The proposed Go Hillsborough sales tax hike will not be on the November ballot. The Eye appreciates the four county commissioners who voted No: Commissioners Victor Crist, Sandy Murman, Al Higginbotham and Stacy White. Please thank them. 

Republican County Commissioner Ken Hagan sided with Democrats Les Miller and Kevin Beckner voting YES to putting the proposed 30 year 1/2% sales tax hike on the ballot. Hagan even doubled down after the 30 year sales tax hike got voted down and seconded a motion by Beckner for a 20 year sales tax hike. 

Why such behavior from Hagan? Because Hagan always supported another huge sales tax hike referendum. He has refused to consider anything else. We can only speculate about Hagan's position on the sales tax also being connected with his #1 focus - paying for a new Rays baseball stadium in Hillsborough County.

Leytham is a very close associate of Hagan and Buckhorn. She is a political operative who has worked for both of their campaigns, often referred to as their campaign consultant. The Times reported right after Parsons Brinckerhoff was handed their million dollar no bid contract [with Leytham in tow] at the end of August 2014 that Mayor Buckhorn filed for reelection, and had assembled his same team of political operatives including Leytham and pollster Keith Frederick. Leytham used Frederick for Go Hillsborough polling conveniently circling our county taxpayer monies to Mayor Buckhorn's pollster.


Beth Leytham is a very close associate of  Hagan, Buckhorn
While Leytham was being paid hundreds of thousands of county taxpayer dollars to facilitate the public face of the Go Hillsborough campaign, she was orchestrating the behind the green curtain private campaign with at least Merrill and Hagan.   

The Eye received a copy of an email sent last week to the county commissioners and President of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce from citizen Tom Rask. Rask's email is a public record so anyone can get a copy of it. It contains information Rask received via a previous public records request he made last year.

To:     Hillsborough County Commission
Cc:     Bob Rohrlack, his assistant Ms. Greco
Bcc:    Interested citizens

Today, in a widely distributed e-mail and in a blog entry posted on their Facebook page (which has over 5,000 followers), the Tampa Chamber insulted the BoCC majority who voted NO on Go Hillsborough last night.

Tampa Chamber CEO Bob Rohrlack wrote:

"We are disappointed that a majority the Board of County Commissioners failed to place a half-cent sales tax increase on the ballot this fall.  As I stated last night during the public comment portion of the hearing – our community must make a significant, long-term investment in transportation. 
Kicking the can down the road is not what we expect of our elected officials nor what our community deserves."So according to Bob Rohrlack, Commissioners Victor Crist, Al Higginbotham, Sandy Murman and Stacy White "kicked the can down the road last night".

This is interesting given that Mr. Rohrlack has not directed similarly harsh words towards Beth Leytham for corrupting the process to begin with. Let's recall that in an official county news release on April 7th, 2015 ( see it here), County Staffer Liana Lopez wrote:

With the first phase of this grass-roots engagement completed, GO Hillsborough will continue with the second, Choices phase from April 6 - May 21. These next 16 open house-style workshops and two telephone town hall meetings will delve further into potential transportation options, and identify areas of consensus and commonality among community preferences. Importantly, only after community needs and desires are clearly understood will strategy and funding options be recommended for the Community Transportation Plan.    [my underlining added]

So if no recommendations on "funding options" were to be made until that second phase was completed, then why was Ms. Leytham discussing a timeline involving "Approve Ballot Language" with Comm. Hagan in the middle of this phase? She did so in e-mails on April 27th, 2015 (attached).

In the attached e-mail (see below), Leytham induced a county commissioner to short-circuit the process she was supposed to be facilitating. That is exactly the kind of corruption of process that killed Go Hillsborough.

Comm. Hagan can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing the exact details of the process, but Leytham cannot be forgiven because her company was the process.

-----------

In my e-mail to you earlier today, I didn't do a touchdown dance over the defeat of Go Hillsborough. I didn't gloat. I've worked really hard to focus on issues, not people. I wish Mr. Rohrlack would've exercised similar restraint so that we can debate issues rather than insults.

------------

As always, thank you for your time.


Regards,

Tom Rask

================================================
Below is the Leytham/Hagan April 2015 email thread referenced above. An actual copy can be found here. Note that Leytham uses her business email address but her email is intentionally sent to Hagan's personal aol.com email address (not his county commission address: HaganK@hillsboroughcounty.org)

From: hagans@aol.com
To: Von der Osten, Barbara
Subject: Fwd: Go Hills - Timelines
Date: Monday, September 28, 2015 3:59:53 PM

-----Original Message-----
From: Ken Hagan <hagans@aol.com>
To: Beth Leytham <bethleytham@theleythamgroup.com>
Sent: Mon, Apr 27, 2015 6:07 pm
Subject: Re: Go Hills - Timelines

Oct 7 looks like the meeting to approve ordinance...
Sent from my iPad


On Apr 26, 2015, at 8:09 PM, Beth Leytham <bethleytham@theleythamgroup.com> wrote:

You good with the general timeline? See other re petition drive, just
fyi.

General Timeline
· PB Recommendations/Briefings to PLG – May 26
· PLG - PB Recommendations Presentation- June 11
· BOCC - Administrator’s budget recommendation - June 17
· BOCC – dark beginning of July through July 15
· PLG finalize Recommendations to BOCC – mid July
· Grassroots/Project Specificity a la Go Hills - August – December (this date is published in I
& O report)
· BOCC – late August/early September – late Oct./early November
           o Approve Budget
           o Approve Ballot Language, Ordinance, etc.
· Campaign “begins” – Jan 2016 (actually moment it is confirmed to ballot)
· Vote – November 2016

Petition Drive
Given the exact negative/losing trajectory that Hillsborough and neighboring Pinellas
suffered from the longer campaigns, here is another timeline:

· Professional Grassroots/Campaign ($450,000) – Pre organize & organize - now through
Jan. 2016 (oversight group, general campaign manager/consultant & fundraising)
· Signature/Petition Drive – January – June 2016
         o Assess primary v. general
· Officially place on Ballot – June 2016
· Obviously, this could shorten campaign from 9 months to 3 or 5 months and reduce overall
campaign costs from $2m to $1.2m (general research and excluding grassroots
fees/costs.)
· Mike is opposed.
        o Concern is failure to get signatures
        o Loss of control of ballot language (we can manage that part)
        o Swing commissioners won’t support as too close to 2016 election cycle


Beth Leytham
TheLeythamGroup
518 N. Tampa Street
Suite 310
Tampa, FL 33602
813.223.5951 (o)
813.245.1522 (c)
www.theleythamgroup.com

This email thread provides more evidence that the Go Hillsborough campaign was a taxpayer funded crony, phony campaign for another huge sales tax hike referendum. 

Leytham used her politically well connected "Insider" relationships to collude behind the scenes personally with Hagan and others on a referendum. Go Hillsborough used half-truths and flat out false information in their campaign messaging. Now we know why. 

It was Hagan who "jumped the shark" for a huge sales tax hike last April - right in the middle of the Go Hillsborough meetings when there was no plan and funding was not even being discussed. We later found out Hagan did that immediately after Go Hillsborough Leytham did a poll showing lukewarm support of maybe 50% who would support a 30 year 1/2% sales tax hike. This was the same poll that Go Hillsborough Leytham and the County refused to comply with my public records requests for the poll details until Channel 10's WTSP's Mike Deeson got involved.

Why was Leytham telling Hagan in April 2015 about a proposed $450,000 Professional/Grassroots campaign for a petition drive to get the sales tax hike on the November ballot? A $450,000 campaign is NO grassroots campaign. 

Who else was Leytham involved in discussions with last year about some petition drive? Tampa Chamber? Mayor Buckhorn? Kevin Thurman? Mercury public affairs or some other PR firm? Obviously Merrill knew about some proposed petition drive because he opposed it. Merrill thought he was going to be successful in pushing public support for the sales tax hike so he opposed any petition drive at that time. 

While the Go Hillsborough campaign and the county were telling the public one thing last April, Leytham was busy behind the scenes orchestrating the sales tax hike referendum - while she was being paid lots of taxpayer dollars by the county through Parsons.

Why did Hagan personally tell Leytham in April 2015 that a vote on the sales tax hike ordinance should be held at the October 7 BOCC meeting? Because Merrill kept stating "they" needed at least a year to "educate" the public….Who is acting as the information traffic copy and conduit for who?

Now Kevin Thurman, the Executive Director of Connect Tampa Bay (CTB), our local transit lobbyist, is advocating for a petition drive. What a coincidence!

The Tribune reported that Kevin Thurman, suddenly being referred to as simply a mass transit advocate - not associated with Connect Tampa Bay, conveniently talks about a citizens petition drive to get the sales tax hike on the ballot:
As soon as the vote was recorded Wednesday night, mass transit advocates were calling for a grass-roots petition drive to put a transportation referendum directly on the ballot. It’s not clear whether they would be shooting for the Nov. 8 election or waiting until 2018. 
It would take 43,611 signed and verified petitions to put a measure on the ballot this year. 
“I think you will see people take matters into their own hands and bypass the county commission,” said Kevin Thurman, an advocate for mass transit.
Was Thurman involved with Leytham's petition drive discussion last year? Kevin Thurman is also a close associate of Beth Leytham. Leytham intentionally used the same brand name "Go Hillsborough" as Connect Tampa Bay's 1% sales tax hike plan they publicly proposed in January 2014 named "Go Hillsborough". Maybe Leytham originally created the brand name in the first place for CTB.

Obviously, collusion behind the scenes reigned throughout the entire Go Hillsborough debacle. What is more disturbing is Go Hillsborough was not an anomaly. Go Hillsborough is simply a symptom of bigger issues with how County Center operates.

Shame on the Tampa Chamber and our local media for supporting such a crony flawed mess. Is this the type of behavior they accept from our electeds and high powered bureaucrats? The use of any means to justify the end - another sales tax hike referendum. 

Go Hillsborough debacle occurred under County Administrator Mike Merrill. There must be some accountability for this mess to regain trust and credibility.  

Going forward Merrill and his deputies, Beth Leytham and Parsons Brinckerhoff must be as far removed from our transportation issue as possible.

For now - Good riddance to Go Hillsborough!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Rays to local businesses – pony up or we will leave

If no one wants the tickets, the expensive box is usually empty, and there is no one at the game to see your advertising what’s the point?


St. Petersburg, Fl
Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
  
At the annual Rays luncheon, Rays owner Stu Sternberg put the touch on the Bay area business community citing a lack of corporate support.

Throwing out the old “you’ll miss us when we're gone,” Sternberg chided local business for not supporting the team you can read more in Charlie Frago’s Tampa Bay Times article: Stu Sternberg to Tampa Bay business community: Rays need corporate support now.

Frago’s article quotes Sternberg as saying Major League Baseball "had given up on Tampa Bay" during the long stalemate with the St. Petersburg City Council, the area's business community now needs to show MLB that it's serious about keeping a team in the region.”

If you go back and look closely at the record, I am not sure MLB was ever really on board with baseball in St. Petersburg.

This may be a chicken and egg question, but the fact is with the level of fan base the Rays seem to have it is not too surprising to me that local businesses are not lining up to by expensive luxury boxes and fists full of tickets.

If no one wants the tickets, the expensive box is usually empty, and there are no people at the game to see your advertising what’s the point?

MLB likes all of those business supporters because they are easily shamed into spending more money and supporting team initiatives.

Most business people in a position to consider a major sports team sponsorship investment are smart enough to know where that money will yield a good return.

Will a shiny new stadium with even more expensive luxury boxes and tickets really turn on the Tampa Bay business community?

Will threats to leave the bay area scare businesses into corporate sponsorships?

I really doubt it.

The Rays have yet to prove former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig wrong, when he said, “This is just not a major-league market.”

Until that happens, I suspect Tampa Bay Business will set in the cheap seats if they go at ll.
E-mail Doc at mail to: dr.gwebb@yahoo.com or send me a Facebook (Gene Webb) Friend request. Please comment below, and be sure to share on Facebook. See Doc's Photo Gallery at Bay Post Photos.

Disclosures:
Contributor: Bob Gualtieri for Pinellas County Sheriff

Friday, April 15, 2016

Board Takes Action But No Public Comment Allowed while County "Finds" Money For BuyBack Program But Still None for Our Neglected Roads

County Administrator Mike Merrill scheduled a "Community Transportation Workshop" Wednesday for the Hillsborough County commissioners. Workshop meetings provide the opportunity for the board to focus on, discuss and ask questions, especially concerning specific complex topics, transparently and in the Sunshine. Workshops are intended for discussion only, not action by the Board. Therefore, public comment is not allowed at workshops. 

The agenda for Wednesday's meeting included presentations and discussions about the proposed mobility fees and discussion about taking the mobility fee ordinances and the sales tax hike ordinance to public hearing. The Eye attended and we were surprised at some of what we heard and the actions taken at the meeting. 

Two-thirds of the meeting was about the mobility fee issue. Mobility fees are a complex issue and when the commissioners started wading into the minutiae, there seemed to be more questions than straight answers. We did note that Commissioner Hagan was concerned about the mobility fee rate discouraging business as he said this:
WE NEED TO ENSURE THAT WHEN ENACTING THIS MOBILITY FEE, WE DO NOT PLACE A HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY AT A COMPETITIVE DISADVANTAGE. 
I FEEL STRONGLY THAT A SOUND ECONOMIC AND FINANCIAL BASIS AND FRAMEWORK MUST BE UTILIZED IN ESTABLISHING THE RATES AND TRANSITION PERIOD. 
THEY [PRIVATE SECTOR] HAVE CHOICES. IF OUR FEES ARE DISPROPORTIONATELY HIGH COMPARED TO SURROUNDING COUNTIES, THIS MAY INFLUENCE THE PRIVATE SECTOR'S DECISIONS. PARTICULARLY WITH RESPECT TO THE SMALL AND MIDSIZE BUSINESSES.
Hagan should take those concerns into consideration regarding his support for pushing our local sales tax higher to 7.5%  These are the counties with a sales tax rate of 7.5% which is the highest rate in the state: Calhoun, Escambia, Gadsden, Jackson, Leon, Madison and Monroe. Calhoun, Jackson and Gadsden are all small counties in the Panhandle. Escambia is Pensacola and Leon is Tallahassee. Madison is a small county at the George border and Monroe County is Key West. Are we competing with these counties?

These are the counties that we are most probably competing with and their sales tax percentage is the same or lower than our current 7%:  Broward - 6%, Dade - 7%, Duval - 7%, Manatee - 6.5%, Miam-Dade -  7%, Orange - 6.5%, Palm Beach - 6%, Pasco - 7%, Pinellas - 7%, Polk - 7%, Sarasota - 7%, Seminole is 7%, Volusia - 6.5%, 

We don't wan't to put Hillsborough County at a competitive advantage either with a higher sales tax. Our county budget should also have a sound financial framework to appropriately fund our county's highest priorities first which includes funding our local roads, a primary responsibility of local government. 

There was also presentation on a proposal for a buy back program for the county to buy back some of the $94 million impact fee credits that are outstanding today. County staff showed how easy it was for the county to "find" money or reallocate tens of millions of dollars in our existing budget for this buyback program. 

But wait - the county has been telling the public for years there is no money in the budget for roads. Here's proof that is not true. Money was found in the budget to fund the buy back program from growth revenues, realigning CIP funding, using some reserves. Great idea but why hasn't the county done the same fiscal due diligence and funded our roads? Why haven't they pursued with such tenacity funding our roads within our existing budget?

Someone(s) down at county center owes the public some answers. The county commissioners need  to start vigorously challenging where our current budget dollars are going as they are not going to one of our highest priorities - our neglected roads.

At the end of the meeting was this agenda item:
Board Discussion items

This agenda item apparently with a misnamed title of Board Discussion was about all the ordinances the commission was considering to take to public hearing. It was obvious from the discussion that there was clear intent for the board to take action and vote at this Workshop. County Administrator Mike Merrill set the stage for the orchestrated action to be taken. Merrill told the Board he had already scheduled the venues for the public hearings. Chair Les Miller specifically stated that he got the advice and counsel of County Attorney Fletcher prior to the meeting that a separate vote for each ordinance is required to take each one to a public hearing. Remember this meeting was not noticed to the public as a meeting that allows public comment.

Interestingly the discussion regarding the sales tax hike included whether the Board had to decide at that meeting on a specific number of years for the tax or the percentage. Why would those questions be asked if no vote or action was expected to occur? The Board was told by County Attorney Chip Fletcher that the number of years in the ordinance is blank. The board has the flexibility to discuss that as part of any decision they make about putting the referendum on the ballot when they vote immediately after the 4/27 meeting. Fletcher also will determine whether the sales tax hike ordinance title could be changed so that the public hearing is noticed properly but would provide flexibility on the percentage of any sales tax hike without having to schedule another public hearing - not sure if that is possible or not at this time.

Below is the Board Policy regarding Workshop Meetings:
BOARD POLICY - SECTION NUMBER: 01.01.00.00RULES OF ORDER - BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS- HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FLORIDAEFFECTIVE DATE: April 6, 2016 Rule 18WORKSHOP MEETINGS. By supermajority vote, the Board may schedule a workshop meeting to discuss items of special importance or complexity to the Board. The purpose of a workshop meeting is to allow staff to make presentations and to allow questions by the Board. Generally, public comment will not be allowed during a Board workshop meeting. However, a citizen may provide written comments on a workshop issue to the County Administrator at least a week in advance of the workshop meeting which will be provided to Commissioners as part of the workshop agenda materials. Further, public comment may be allowed at the discretion of the presiding officer, but will be no more than three (3) minutes for each person unless the presiding officer wishes to extend the time limit. If the Board plans to take official action on a proposition at the workshop meeting, then members of the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard and public comment will be taken. An agenda of the order of business at the workshop meeting shall be prepared by the County Administrator and made available to the public a reasonable time before the workshop meeting. The County Administrator’s Office shall include language in the agenda of each workshop meeting that if the Board plans to take official action on a proposition at the workshop meeting, members of the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard and public comment will be taken. Official action may be taken upon any of the items discussed at the workshop meeting and any of the items of official business that require immediate consideration and decision by the Board. If a workshop meeting is scheduled on a Wednesday following a Tuesday land use meeting, the workshop meeting shall start at 1:30 p.m.
Did the Board violate this policy by not opening up the meeting to allow public comment on the actions the Board obviously planned to take at this workshop? We are pursuing that question with the County Attorney's office. 

The Board should have used the workshop to discuss the items to gain closure on their questions to finalizing any ordinance language. They should have requested the finalized ordinance language be brought back, just a week later, to the April 20 regular BOCC meeting, where public comment is always available. That way the meeting would have been properly noticed providing an opportunity for the public to weigh in on whether these ordinances should even go to public hearing. Then the Board could have taken their action voting on the finalized ordinance language and whether to take the ordinances to public hearing. 

At the very least, the Workshop meeting should have been opened up for public comment when it was clear the Board was going to take action and vote.

With the ballot language not yet finalized, there was a conscious decision by the commissioners to vote at this Workshop on each of the 5 ordinances to take to a public hearing . It was a unanimous vote to take the first four related to mobility fees to public hearing on 4/26. It was 6-1, with Commissioner White voting No, to take the sales tax hike ordinance to public hearing on 4/27.

Even if the outcome was the same at the 4/20 BOCC meeting, the proper process and policy should have been followed by the Board, Merrill and Fletcher, especially after we have all experienced the Go Hillsborough debacle. They are all well seasoned commissioners and bureaucrats. There's already enough distrust in this county and trust is built on being honest and being honest brokers.

Almost nothing is coincidental in the Merrill Administration. Most everything is setup, orchestrated and staged like a well choreographed ballet.

Next time their choreography should at least include following their own policies and properly notice a meeting where the intent is for the Board to vote and take action.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Surprise: Poll Done By Company Wanting the $2 million Advocacy Campaign for Sales Tax Hike Boondoggle

The Tampa Chamber somberly released their Go Hillsborough poll results last week which showed only tepid support for any sales tax hike. They did not release the poll details but their poll of 400 likely voters revealed voters were about split in half but the poll had a margin of error of 5%. It is very likely that the results were well below 50% support for any sales tax hike. 

While the law enforcement investigation was going on we knew the Go Hillsborough shape shifters were busy behind Oz's green curtain - ready to pounce. Transparency has been lacking throughout the entire Go Hillsborough debacle so why start now? The desperation mode is cranking and the media propaganda is heating back up. 

Coincidentally timed - the BOCC has a workshop today to discuss the following:
Set the following items for Public Hearing:
  • Mobility Fee Ordinance
  • Impact Fee Ordinance 
  • Comprehensive Plan Update
  • Land Development Code Revisions 
  • One-Half Percent Transportation System Sales Surtax Ordinance
Conveniently timed is today's front page Tribune's report on another poll taken about Go Hillsborough and the sales tax hike boondoggle. Today's Tribune article is titled Poll shows two-thirds support Hillsborough transportation tax which reports:
A new poll indicates a majority of Hillsborough County voters would support a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax increase for transportation improvements if a vote were held today. 
The poll, conducted by the Tampa-based Mercury firm and financed by unidentified business interests, indicates the strongest support yet for the proposed tax. A total of 66 percent of those surveyed said they would either “definitely” or “probably” vote for the tax.
Hagan said the survey was financed by a group of businessmen in different industries who did not want to be identified. Asked if the group would ever come out of the shadows, Hagan said that was a “distinct possibility.”
The Tribune fails to report that the law enforcement investigation found no criminal wrongdoing but also failed to get all the evidence and that ethics complaints are still being investigated. The Tribune is playing their role as part of the "Insiders" who are pushing the sales tax hike.

It is apparent that this is poll was timed, staged and orchestrated to coincide with the discussion and vote by the BOCC to put the sales tax hike referendum on the ballot. We assume the businessmen in the shadows who paid for the poll are the special interests who have been trying to decide whether to invest $2 million and their time and resources into the Go Hillsborough debacle and another failed referendum.

It would be refreshing if these shadowy businessmen would spend as much time and resource holding our electeds accountable and pursuing funding solutions the commissioners themselves have the power to implement - than all their time trying to ram an unnecessary sales tax through - after we already said NO in 2010.

Guess what was specifically not polled? According to the Tribune article:
Hagan said that by design, the ballot question does not mention light rail — a mode of transportation that opponents focused on and that was highly unpopular among suburban voters. 
Did someone forget to tell Buckhorn? Apparently he did not get the message that "they"  must change "their" messaging strategy for the sales tax hike boondoggle. Buckhorn gave his state of the city address yesterday as Florida Politics reported
Earlier he [Buckhorn] told the audience to “just imagine a city connected to the larger region. A city modernized with mass transit. Rail. And yes, I said rail,”
Apparently Jean Duncan, the city of Tampa's transportation director, also did not get the message either. According to this recent TBBJ article titled Price tags placed on Go Hillsborough rail and streetcar projectsDuncan was guesstimating the costs of the fairy dust rail projects. Duncan mentions light rail as a mode for the rail from TIA to downtown. Modernizing the trolley is really transforming it into a street level light rail.

Just who are "they" trying to kid deceive?

Surprised? The company Mercury who did this poll is a PR and public strategy firm not a polling firm.  Sound eerily familiar?


Mercury is a PR and public strategy firm
We found this information browsing their website
Mercury is a high-stakes public strategy firm.  
We have world-class experts across a dozen different disciplines, all collaborating to drive the external environment and execute winning campaigns. 
Mercury Florida, a joint venture partnership between Mercury, a national bipartisan public strategy firm, and Floridian Partners, a statewide consulting and lobbying firm, announced its launch in 2013. The company is led by Mercury founding partner Kieran Mahoney, with leadership of Managing Director, Ashley Walker, who previously served as the Florida Director of Obama for America. 
We launched Mercury Florida last year [2013] in order to create a new best-in-class public affairs consultancy in the state of Florida. 
Mercury is a high-stakes, bipartisan public strategy firm. The firm provides a comprehensive suite of services that includes federal government relations, international affairs, digital influence, public opinion research, media strategy and a bipartisan grassroots mobilization network in all 50 states. 
Does the name Mercury sound familiar? Last September just about the time the Go Hillsborough law enforcement investigation was starting, the Tribune reported PR firms eager to pitch possible transportation tax
Soon after Hillsborough County leaders indicated they might seek a sales tax increase for transportation projects, several prominent private consulting firms started jockeying for work on a potential campaign to promote the tax.  
The firms were attracted by potential contracts worth tens of thousands of dollars. Similar campaigns, such as last year’s Greenlight Pinellas, paid well over $1 million, all of it raised from the private sector. Much of that money will go to companies that specialize in campaign management and communications. 
“In our world — public affairs, strategic planning and advocacy — this is a big deal,” said Ana Cruz, a political consultant who works with Mercury, one of the firms that talked to the county about the campaign. “These big campaigns … we all want to be part of it. It’s what we do.” 
It was this kind of behind-the-scenes contact between consultants and public officials that already has cast a shadow over the county’s Go Hillsborough transportation initiative. 
Kieran Mahoney, Mercury’s chief executive officer, met with Merrill more than a year ago, on Aug. 20, 2014, less than a week after the county Transportation Policy Leadership Group agreed it needed to hire a firm with experience in transportation referendums. Merrill described his talk with Mahoney as a general description of the Go Hillsborough process. 
Mercury and Ashley Walker are mentioned in the Go Hillsborough law enforcement investigation report. In Merrill's interview on page 651 of the report, Merrill stated
Mercury was only interested in the private campaign, when that would
occur…
Remember this was August 2014 as the county was telling the public they were going to conduct a public engagement effort to create a transportation plan. The public was told funding would not even be discussed until after a plan was created. HA! 

At the August 12 PLG meeting, it was conveniently orchestrated after Merrill suggested hiring an outside firm to help for Commissioner Hagan to recommend a transportation expert (not a PR firm) be hired to do "public engagement". The public was not told that the county was intending to hire an engineering firm for a scope of work titled "Hillsborough County Transportation Referendum Support."  The term referendum is political because it is about an election and voting.
Outside of Sunshine with no transparency the county
handed Parsons a no bid contract for scope of work titled
 "Hillsborough CountyTransportation REFERENDUM Support"
That was all orchestrated behind the scenes. The Eye's first public records request asking for documentation related to handing Parsons the no bid contract was September 9, 2014. Finally after numerous attempts to receive such documentation, we finally received requested documents on December 4, 2014 -  following a meeting at County Center with County staffer Eric Johnson and Public Works Director John Lyons. 

The only assumption one can make for the county not providing timely compliance with our public records request is to keep this information from the public. By December, Leytham was fully on board and had already conducted her focus group electioneering activities in November to create a marketing message to launch the campaign. There was a pattern of behavior throughout the Go Hillsborough campaign with timely compliance of our public records request.

Page 645 of the Go Hillsborough investigation report, Merrill states admits
Because the Policy Leadership Group, well all of us wanted
someone who first and foremost had experience and successful
referendums in consulting and successful transportation referendums.
That was the primary criteria and then the second would have been, you know, just solid transportation engineering experience. But we wanted someone who actually had done this before in the referendum situation because that's different than just doing traditional engineering.
Confirms again what we said from the get go - Go Hillsborough was a $1.35 million taxpayer funded PR and marketing campaign to push another sales tax hike. Unlike PSTA's Greenlight Pinellas marketing campaign, Hillsborough decided to hide their public engagement PR campaign behind the facade of an expensive engineering firm. 

Back to this recent poll. 

How do you have a valid poll on a proposed transportation sales tax hike that includes high cost rail that doesn't include asking about rail? Rail has always been part of Go Hillsborough as Mayor Buckhorn stated at the May 2014 PLG meeting that rail was part of the plan and everyone knows it. 

Buckhorn laid down his demands back then. Then he and the city of Tampa never had to pay one dime of the county taxpayer funded $1.35 million Go Hillsborough debacle. Buckhorn got to sit back and ride the coattails of the county's PR campaign to push the tax hike to pay for his trains. 

Go Hillsborough includes three high cost transit boondoggles: a rail from TIA to downtown, transforming the bankrupted trolley to a street level light rail and expanding it and a taj mahal BRT from Brandon to downtown that our transit agency HART never requested. 

No one knows the validity of any poll without the full poll details. Perhaps Commissioner Hagan should release the full poll details since he believes the results supports his position for the huge sales tax hike.

What this poll proves is that the private campaign is in high gear and has already begun before any referendum has been placed on the ballot - just like 2010. 

No disclosures or reporting has to be done until a tax hike measure boondoggle gets on the ballot. It's not officially "electioneering" until there is an actual ballot measure. The Republican dominant county commission is "gearing" up for such a vote. By the end of this month they will decide whether to put the huge sales tax hike, proposed through a very flawed and deceptive process, on the 2016 Presidential election year ballot.

We can only speculate what services have been pre-paid to evade disclosure of how much the campaign will actually cost to ram the tax through.

Nothing has changed. It's the same broken template, the same tired playbook and the same people pushing another huge sales tax hike in Tampa Bay. 

What a novel idea: Have the company, Mercury, who wants the $2 million "big deal" advocacy campaign do a poll to help push support for getting the sales tax hike on the ballot.

We await the Go Hillsborough shape shifters next tactic.

But in Hillsborough County - it's 2010 all over again.

23 minutes on the 79

When you need to get there a PSTA bus is a good choice.

St. Petersburg, Fl
Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Author: In Search of Robin

 Most of you who read my Blog regularly know I am not a particularly big fan of the PSTA and especially the PSTA Administration, so this Post may come as a bit of a surprise.

Last week, I needed to get to a U-Haul location on 66th Street to pick up a truck for a few days. I did not want to leave a car at the U-Haul store so I thought I would check PSTA Route 79 and see if it fit into my plans.

Sure enough, I could catch the 79 at 102nd Ave North and drop off at 40th Avenue North leaving just a short walk to my destination.

There was a small first mile issue the stop at 66th Street and 102nd is about a mile away from my home, but a 20-minute walk solved that problem.

The 79 was due to arrive at my stop at 4:58 and at 5:00, the bus pulled up.

There were about 20 people on the bus, including a man in a wheel chair.

We made several stops as we went south on 66th Street. At one stop, another gentleman in a wheel chair came on the bus using the automated ramp at the front door of the bus.

The driver helped the passenger into the second wheel chair spot, secured the chair, and we were back on our way. A few stops later, the first wheel chair passenger got off the bus with very friendly assistance from the driver.

The second wheel chair passenger exited the bus a couple of stops later assisted by the driver and his very friendly smile.

Several of the passengers seemed to know the driver well, and he was friendly, helpful and courteous.

Almost 23 minutes to the second, we were at 40th Avenue amazing given the traffic on 66th Street at 5:00PM.

As I exited the bus, "Thank you for riding" came as I stepped from the bus for my short walk to U-Haul.

Fare $2.25 a bargain to say the least.

The demographics of the passengers ranged from students to the elderly.

If you need to get somewhere in the County and you don't have a car or don't want to take your car check out PSTA at http://www.psta.net/index.php. There you will find all kinds of information and facts about PSTA that I will bet you do not know.

Try out the Transit Trip Planner and it will give you a route and schedule.

When you only look into the politics of public transportation, it is easy to forget that the PSTA serves a vital purpose in Pinellas County. Too many people it is more than a bus line it is a lifeline.

E-mail Doc at mail to: dr.gwebb@yahoo.com or send me a Facebook (Gene Webb) Friend request. Please comment below, and be sure to share on Facebook. See Doc's Photo Gallery at Bay Post Photos.

Disclosures:
Contributor: Bob Gualtieri for Pinellas County Sheriff

Monday, April 4, 2016

Legal but Ethical? Go Hillsborough's Highly Paid "Insider" Busybody


The Go Hillsborough law enforcement investigation report was released on the Monday afternoon of the day before our Tuesday Primary Election. That's a convenient way to change the media coverage……get it drowned out by our Primary Election coverage. 

All of the media reporting from the Tribune and the Times basically focused only on the 12 page summary from State Attorney Mark Ober. The Tribune/Times reporters, to my knowledge, have not read the almost 2000 page investigative report. They should. Only WTSP's Noah Pransky, who broke the story last fall, appears to have actually read through the details according to his latest reporting, The 3 most damning things in Go Hillsborough investigation.

Our local print media refuses to report on the details. Why? Because they are part of the "Insiders" and as economist Larry Summers once told Senator Elizabeth Warren: 
Outsiders could say what they want, he told her, but people on the inside don’t listen to them. 
Insiders get more access to push their ideas to powerful people.
But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders,” Summers told Warren
Our local media, except for WTSP's Noah Pransky, made a conscious decision to be Insiders because it corroborates their own agenda for a sales tax hike and that end justifies any means for getting there. Shameful!

Most reporting also fails to include there are Ethics complaints being investigated by the Ethics Commission in Tallahassee. 

The big news (or not) is that State Attorney Ober found no criminal wrong doing. That was what we always expected because the legal bar is low, no forensic investigation was conducted and the investigation was contained within a very narrow focus.

Cronyism does not equate to illegal and we never stated it did. Just because something is not illegal, does not mean it is ethical, moral, virtuous, honest or has any sense of integrity.  

But thanks to County Administrator Mike Merrill who asked for the investigation. The bigger news is the detailed investigation report confirms much of what the Eye has stated about the Go Hillsborough debacle. The cronyism is obvious and the timeline of events are not coincidental. 

The entire investigative report can be found here. Read it because it is "Eye" opening. It's a pdf file so use the "Find" tool and search on the words Parsons, Beth Leytham, lobbyist, or the names of those interviewed which included all the commissioners, Mayor Buckhorn, Mike Merrill, Bob Clifford. A Pepcid or antacid may be needed before reading to prevent heartburn or nausea. 

We are trudging through the almost 2000 pages. Here's a glimpse of some of what we have read, learned or confirmed:

Confirmed: Go Hillsborough was always about a sales tax hike…..stupid……

The county used the guise of public engagement to orchestrate and create a taxpayer funded Go Hillsborough campaign to specifically sell another sales tax hike. Go Hillsborough was not about doing engineering work - there was never an engineer provided by Parsons nor any certified engineering documents produced. We did get branding, electioneering focus groups, electioneering polling and colluding with the media to create their "message".

What is in this report? 
Confirms Beth Leytham's massive access. Pages 147-158 of the report contains Leytham's phone records for the time period of 8/1-9/5. That was the time period leading up to the County handing Parsons their no bid million dollar blank check. WTSP's Pransky added up the number of calls for that time period in his last report:
As reported by WTSP's Noah Pransky,
# of calls from/to Beth Leytham
between 8/12014 and 9/5/2014
Below are Leytham's phone records just for the day of the August 12 Policy Leadership Group (PLG) meeting where suddenly the PLG was voting on hiring a consultant to do public engagement.


Leytham calls day of August 12, 2014 PLG meeting  (click to enlarge)
What really happened between June and August of 2014?

Merrill stated at the May 2014 PLG meeting that the transit projects were to be presented to the PLG members at the next PLG meeting in June. Roads had already been discussed during previous months meeting. Merrill cancelled June and July PLG meetings. Instead of picking up where they left off in May and presenting transit projects to the PLG in August, all of a sudden the PLG was voting to hire a "transportation expert not a PR firm" to do transportation public engagement.

Obviously a decision was made between the May and August PLG meetings, outside of Sunshine and behind the scenes that the direction of the PLG changed. Who made that decision and/or who influenced that decision? From those interviewed, the county or Merrill or someone(s) felt there was a sense of urgency to getting this public engagement done so a vote could be taken by the commissioners to put another sales tax hike on the 2016 ballot. It was all about getting a referendum on the 2016 ballot. The transit projects, as promised by Merrill, were never presented publicly to the PLG. 

What else is gleaned from the report?
  • Page 95 - Commissioner Hagan and Leytham text each other during county commission meetings, including text messages related to agenda items (ironically the agenda for county commission meetings provided the public clearly state ALL CELLULAR PHONES AND PAGERS MUST BE TURNED OFF WHILE IN THE BOARDROOM.) Are they exempt from their own rules? 

Every BOCC agenda contains this
statement regarding cell phones

Text messages between Leytham and Hagan
during 10/7/2015 BOCC meeting (click to enlarge)
  • We know who sends potty mouth text messages (text at 11:43:02)
  • We know who cannot sneeze without speaking first with Leytham
  • We know who writes Commissioner Hagan's scripted soliquoy's
  • We know the sequence of events were not coincidental
  • While apparently not illegal,the county abused the CCNA procurement process which is governed by Florida Statute 287.55 to procure "professional engineering services". This Statute must be reformed by our state legislators so the abuse of using it to procure taxpayer funded campaign work for a referendum never happens again - as that is using taxpayer money against the taxpayer - a post for another day.
One of the biggest issues the Sheriff's investigation seemed concerned about was all the gray matter surrounding what constitutes a lobbyist (or not).

Page 47 of the report includes Parsons Brinckerhoff's "Political Consultants" agreement with Beth Leytham dated April 2014. Parsons paid Leytham a $5000 a month retainer fee to use her politically well connected relationships to obtain business for PB in the Tampa Bay area. 
Parsons/Leytham "Political Consultants" Agreement
dated April 2014 (click to enlarge)
Leytham was working for Parsons when all those calls above were made. Common sense indicates Parsons Brinckerhoff was paying Leytham to exploit her access, especially the massive access she has with electeds. She was being paid $5000 a month by Parsons to obtain "prospective opportunities" during those months leading up to the county handing Parsons the public engagement "opportunity". It was well worth Parsons investment because four months and $20K later, Parsons was handed the $1.35 million campaign with Leytham "in tow".

Leytham and Parsons Brinckerhoff have had contracts working together for years. Her website highlights Parsons Brinckerhoff as one of her clients. As we posted here, Leytham and Parsons worked on Buckhorn's $1.2 million InVision Tampa. Everyone knows who Leytham is as she has had plenty of media coverage over the years (another post for another day). Don't kid yourself that there is anyone down at County Center who suddenly got amnesia and feigns ignorance of who Beth Leytham is. 
Leytham's clients highlighted on her website
A concern that appears to have been brought up in the report  is the numerous hats Leytham wears. She wears so many - "friend", campaign consultant, consultant, advocate, close associate, lobbyist, political consultant, information traffic cop, political ally, intelligence gatherer, media conduit, personal Google alert….How did those decision makers, who she had massive access to and was in constant communication with, know what hat she was wearing whenever they were communicating or she called or texted?

It is apparent that Leytham likes to stick her nose into county and city business while wearing all her hats. But Leytham was not just a nosy busybody like Mrs. Gladys Kravitz of the old TV show Bewitched. Leytham is a highly paid "Insider" busybody who has been on the receiving end of lots of money, including lots of taxpayer money. Exploiting her massive access to electeds and decision makers, it certainly appears her "Insider" busybody nosiness has benefited her. 
Nosy Busybody Gladys Kravitz from "Bewitched"
A common question throughout the investigation asked of those interviewed under oath was whether Beth Leytham was a lobbyist. Many of those interviewed conveniently used the same terminology to describe Leytham (as if coached) - she's an advocate, a consultant and an "intelligence source". But asked if she was a lobbyist - almost all said no.

County Administrator Mike Merrill admits that "depending on who you ask, yeah she was a lobbyist" and how "clever" she was because she never disclosed who she was representing. He throws it back to Leytham's responsibility to register as a lobbyist, which of course, she did not. He throws his hands up and says it's not his or the county's responsibility to enforce anything. Nice, huh? No wonder she wanted that lobbying ordinance presentation from Hagan on the day that item was on the county commission agenda. Think she wanted to weigh in on it?




From HCSO Interview with Merrill
 (click to enlarge)
In Commissioner Murman's interview that begins on page 734, she cearly stated Leytham was a lobbyist:
From HCSO Interview with Leytham
(click to enlarge)
Here’s some definitions for lobbyist:
dictionary.com: a person who tries to influence legislation on behalf of a special interest
vocabulary.com: A lobbyist is someone hired by a business or a cause to persuade legislators to support that business or cause.
businessdictionary.com: The act of attempting to influence business and government leaders to create legislation or conduct an activity that will help a particular organization.

If lobbying before the state legislature, below is FL Statute 11.045 Lobbying before the Legislature which defines lobbying and lobbyists:
(f) “Lobbying” means influencing or attempting to influence legislative action or nonaction through oral or written communication or an attempt to obtain the goodwill of a member or employee of the Legislature. 
(g) “Lobbying firm” means any business entity, including an individual contract lobbyist, that receives or becomes entitled to receive any compensation for the purpose of lobbying, where any partner, owner, officer, or employee of the business entity is a lobbyist. 
(h) “Lobbyist” means a person who is employed and receives payment, or who contracts for economic consideration, for the purpose of lobbying, or a person who is principally employed for governmental affairs by another person or governmental entity to lobby on behalf of that other person or governmental entity.
Leytham never registered as a lobbyist. 

If it walks, talks and squawks like a lobbyist, what is it?

Do we expect our electeds and powerful decision makers to tiptoe around and tiptoe over the legal bar or be leaping over the ethical bar? 

Read the investigative report and you decide. 

More to come so keep a big supply of antacid.