Monday, August 3, 2015

Go Hillsborough Violates Sunshine Laws: Time to Shut It Down!

The EyeonTampaBay continues to post about Go Hillsborough's lack of transparency.

The latest outrage is my attempt since April to get detailed information regarding activities Go Hillsborough conducted at taxpayer expense. I began asking for the focus group information on April 26, 2015, at the same time I asked for the poll details. I submitted follow up emails that included cc'ing County Administrator Mike Merrill who hired the Parsons Brinckerhoff/Beth Leytham team. Merrill never responded.
An email requesting details for activities conducted
by taxpayer fundedGoHillsborough
How did I learn of the focus groups, market analysis and polling being done by Leytham? I got the invoices submitted to the county from Parsons Brinckerhoff. I did not trust how the cronies running the Go Hillsborough campaign would use our tax dollars. All these activities were right there on the invoices that the county was paying.
Parsons Brinckerhoff invoice includes
PR lobbyist Beth Leytham charges
I contacted County staff numerous times, contacted Go Hillsborough directly and submitted Statute 119 Public Records Requests for the focus group details. Same as with the poll details, the County, Leytham, and I assume Parsons, all stonewalled or ignored me. No one associated with Go Hillsborough even acknowledged they received my request. Go Hillsborough apparently thinks they are "above" having to provide any details to a citizen Jane taxpayer who asks. Are the Go Hillsborough cronies that arrogant that they forget or simply do not care that it's the taxpayers footing "their" bill.

It was odd that County staff kept telling me they did not have the information as if that would make me go away.  Since I had the invoices I responded back that the County paid for these activities so how could they not know what they paid for. That's another disturbing thought. Certainly the County's Accounts Payable process has controls in place to ensure the county actually has what is being paid for.

The County should have all the details related to activities conducted at county taxpayer expense, especially for an important transportation initiative. These details must be part of the public records readily available to the public via Statute 119 public records requests.

I brought this non-compliance issue up with some of the County Commissioners, that I was not being given the information I requested. I was trying to understand how the county commissioners can be pursuing multi-BILLION dollar decisions when they don't even have all the information to make these decisions. 

Why would the county and county commissioners only be given specifically selected "filtered" information or a filtered finished work product? If the county had performed all these activities, they would have the details. Outsourcing the work to consultants and contractors does not mean our Sunshine laws are null and void. The county cannot wash their hands of information the public has a right to see and access.

Why weren't our county commissioners asking for this information? While we understand the commissioners may not be able to read every single detailed piece of information, they all have staff to help them. The county commissioners created this transportation initiative. They put it out there front and center. Yet they weren't curious enough to ask questions. That is astoundingly disturbing. Are other big decisions  being made by them based on selected "filtered" information?

Knowing that Parsons and County Administrator Mike Merrill planned to present their proposal(s) at the June 11, 2015 PLG meeting, I wanted the detailed poll and focus group information PRIOR to that meeting. Instead, Leytham and the County preferred to stonewall me.

Parsons and Merrill proposed another huge 30 year $3.5 Billion sales tax hike at the June 11 PLG meting. If the county did not have the details behind the work product Parsons handed to the PLG as they announced a multi-BILLION dollar proposal on June 11, that is shameful! 

I finally got some of the focus group information Thursday, July 30th, over 3 months from when I originally asked for information.  Same as with the polling details I requested, it took a media request by Channel 10 Investigative Reporter Mike Deeson for Leytham and the County to ante up some detailed information about activities paid for by county taxpayers. As Channel 10's Deeson reported Thursday:
After repeated public record requests, Hillsborough County required the consultant on the Go Hillsborough transportation initiative to release information on the focus groups taxpayers funded.
It is obvious the County, Parsons and Leytham's intent was to not hand over any details of what they were doing with our tax dollars prior to the huge sales tax hike proposal on June 11th.  Is that using tax dollars against the taxpayer? Isn't that illegal?

Why did it take a media request to the county for the county to finally require the politically well connected PR lobbyist Beth Leytham to release the information requested?

This is wrong and it is outrageous!

Public Records Request from ANY citizen must be taken as seriously as those requested by the media. Go Hillsborough and the County apparently think otherwise.

I am not surprised because I have been fighting a transparency battle with the Go Hillsborough campaign since they first launched. 

Back in February when Go Hillsborough first launched, I found out that a crony ad agency, Chappell-Roberts, owns the website. I noticed the website launched without any of the required disclaimers that information on that website is subject to public access.

I immediately contacted the County and some county commissioners at that time. I spoke with the county's new Communication's Director, Liana Lopez. (interesting the timing of the county hiring a new communications director.....just as this campaign was launching...for another referendum...)

I not only asked Lopez that the disclaimers be added to the website (they were) but I also asked her who owns all the data gathered and assimilated by the taxpayer funded GoHillsborough campaign since the county did not own the domain name. Lopez confirmed with me that the county owns all the data. Also on that call with myself and Lopez was an IT person the county had recently hired. Apparently the county was hiring some new IT folks to work on data being transferred from Go Hillsborough over into the county domain.

I raised my concern with Lopez, as I did with others including some county commissioners at that time, about the county not owning the domain name. My concern regarding how this campaign was unfolding went back to there never was a transparent bid or RFP or even any requirements documented from the county for this effort. The county simply directed work orders to Parsons Brinckerhoff under an umbrella "Miscellaneous Engineering Services" contract. How would the county ensure they get all the data the county should own for all the activities conducted by the taxpayer funded Go Hillsborough campaign? 

Back in February I was assured by Lopez that the county owned all the data and the county would get all the data from the Go Hillsborough campaign.

Obviously that is not the case.

The other issue I raised with the County and Lopez was whether there was a document between the county and the consultant/contractors that specifically states the county owns all the data and prevents the consultant/contractors from handing over or selling any or all of the rich information they gathered at taxpayer expense to anyone else, e.g. a private sector advocacy campaign. To my knowledge, there is no such document so it appears the consultant/contractors could hand over the rich cache of data they gathered  at taxpayer expense to the highest bidder or to the cause they support.

We will point out once again that he county has gotten themselves into this precarious position because they never used a transparent process up front, no bid, no RFP, no requirements. The county's rules of engagement with Parsons Brinckerhoff was simply handing them a million dollar taxpayer blank check.

As we have documented, the taxpayer funded Go Hillsborough has a systemic transparency problem. The County or GoHillsborough or a crony PR lobbyist cannot refuse to comply with Public Records Requests from the general public. This is a legal issue and the non-compliance must stop.

Better yet, someone(s) at County Center needs to be held accountable and responsible for the mess the county has created with taxpayer monies. Someone(s) need to shut down Go Hillsborough now. 

The County Commissioners need to stop ANY further county tax dollars from going to Parsons Brinckerhoff, Beth Leytham or anyone else associated with Go Hillsborough.

Next up we will look at the Focus Groups and the information collected....because there are serious questions about these activities.


  1. Are these civil infractions? Are there criminal violations too? Has Mark Ober been contacted for a response?

  2. They are criminal infractions. I would never count on the state attorney. FDLE but more likely if there are RICO predicates connected in the formulation of this sham transit initiative, the Department of Justice.