Wednesday, October 28, 2015

It's All Been Corrupted and Compromised: Shut Down the PLG and Go Hillsborough NOW!

The Eye has always been skeptical of the transportation initiative and the Policy Leadership Group (PLG) since it was created in March 2013. How could we not be skeptical when the very first participants invited to participate were the rail cartel. On August 4, 2013 I posted A Solution looking for a Problem and said way back then
We need problem solving public policies not agenda based policies. So yes as Salinero stated I will be watching this process closely and suggest all taxpayers in Hillsborough County do as well. Or hold on to your wallets!
How prescient....because the process ended up creating a $1.35 million taxpayer funded crony mess resulting in a flawed proposed huge $3.5 - 7 Billion sales tax hike.

No one at County Center or the county commissioners can feign ignorance about this mess. They were warned and those warnings are publicly documented.

We have documented the cronyism, the deception, the flawed process, the half-truths, the flat out lies, what appears to be violations of our Sunshine laws, what could be violations of our electioneering laws, violations of provisions within Parson's CCNA umbrella contract and the phoniness that has surrounded the entire Go Hillsborough campaign.

The problems are not going away. Certainly Mike Merrill, Parsons, Bob Clifford, Beth Leytham and the county commissioners cannot think these issues are going to go into hiding and be swept under the rug while law enforcement is investigating.

They better think again. 

WTSP's Noah Pransky's latest 10 Investigates reveals that some county commissioners intentionally and consistently use their personal email accounts to have private discussions about county business. As reported by Pransky, the commissioners did not hand over these emails when requested via Statute 119 public records requests until a private citizen threatened legal action. 
Those public records – never produced for 10 Investigates by commissioners – reveal that not all the emails were personal in nature, with many dealing with county-related topics such as transportation expansion (now dubbed "Go Hillsborough") as well as coordination on newspaper op-eds Leytham helped the commissioners write. 
The 85 emails from Hagan and 27 emails from Murman also demonstrate how frequently the commissioners use their personal AOL accounts to discuss public business. And the failure to turn the documents over to 10 Investigates, despite several requests, raises new questions about whether additional electronic communications may exist between the county's most powerful politicians and one of its most powerful behind-the-scenes operatives.
Hmmm Sound familiar? There's no private servers sitting in a bathroom but these commissioners intentionally used their personal email accounts to secretly discuss county business with the politically well connected PR lobbyist Beth Leytham. How many more secret emails or text messages exist like these and what do they say? Taxpayers and voters deserve to know.

Leytham has been dubbed the "Queen of Damage Control" but we'll shorten it to "Queen Beth" because she is now Queen of all the damage she herself has created but cannot control, regardless of how many times the Tribune tries to circle their wagons to cover for her.

Queen Beth blurs all lines between the many hats she wears -- political consultant, close advisor, close friend, close associate, lobbyist, campaign consultant, private citizen, candidate volunteer. She uses those hats for easy access to the electeds, Mike Merrill, the media and other so-called power brokers. Queen Beth rarely discloses which hat she is wearing when. Does that enable her to circumvent lobbyists requirements and campaign filing disclosures?

What did we learn from Pransky's latest report and the private emails? Certainly more questions need answering. 

Confirms our previous claims that the Go Hillsborough campaign, County staff, County Attorney Chip Fletcher, Parsons, Queen Beth and some county commissioners violated our broad Sunshine Laws by refusing to timely comply with Statute 119 Public Records Requests.
"To paraphrase Attorney General Pam Bondi, access to public records is not up to the whim of public officials — it is an enforceable right of the people. Our elected officials, and those who work on their behalf, have to remember that they have a legal duty to produce all records related to public business pursuant to a request for such records."
Confirms that Queen Beth was running a "shadow" Go Hillsborough campaign totally in the dark outside the public view.

Confirms our claims the intention of the Go Hillsborough campaign was always to result in putting another huge 30 year sales tax referendum on the ballot. 

Murman apologizes while Hagan hits back with a full page letter to Pransky ala the known Leytham style of deflecting, doubling down and pointing fingers at others.  

How can our own electeds, their staff and the County Attorney's office not fully understand our broad Sunshine laws and how to comply with them? 

What "imprecise communications" is County Attorney Chip Fletcher referring to that he stated his office was taking responsibility for? 

This private email exchange between Queen Beth and Hagan, received through a public records request and referenced in Pransky's latest report, provides "their private" Go Hillsborough referendum timeline. 
Private email exchange between Leytham and Hagan
 re: timeline for referendum (click to enlarge or click link above)
How can Queen Beth be scheming secretly with Hagan in April about a referendum timeline? She was being paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars at that time to run the campaign and Go Hillsborough was telling the public in April that recommendations on funding options were to be made much later in the process. 

Should the county demand their money back from her? She was circumventing the very process she was being paid to run.

Also, this email exchange occurred at the very same time Queen Beth had conducted a Go Hillsborough poll at taxpayer expense in April. Suddenly Hagan "jumped the shark" and publicly came out for a sales tax referendum almost 2 months before the tax hike was formally proposed at the June 11 PLG meeting. 

It is apparent that Queen Beth gave Hagan the poll results back then but she refused to provide any poll information to citizens who requested copies of the information via Statute 119 Public Records Request. 

How did Queen Beth communicate the poll results to Hagan? Who all did she communicate them to - any other county commissioners, Merrill.....and when did that communication occur?

What is this petition drive Leytham refers to in the email exchange? Has that ever been publicly discussed? It obviously was discussed with County Administrator Mike Merrill because she states he opposed it. Who else was a petition drive discussed with - any other county commissioners?

Who is this "professional grassroots" campaign - costing $450K - Queen Beth refers to? Who was she orchestrating that strategy with? Isn't the use of "professional"and  "grassroots" together in the same sentence an oxymoron? Perhaps Queen Beth should check Webster's dictionary for the meaning of each. A "professional grassroots" campaign costing $450K is called astroturfing - the deceptive tactic of simulating grassroots support for a cause undertaken by people or organizations with interest in shaping public opinion.

As we posted previously, the Parsons contract is Risky Business to taxpayers. The CCNA procurement process used to hand Parsons their million dollar no bid blank check contract to create a transportation plan was never intended to be used for campaign work, micro-targeting of voters, polling and electioneering work for putting a sales tax referendum on the ballot. 

The Go Hillsborough campaign collected lots of rich data, rich voter information, contact information, etc. at taxpayer expense. The county needs written contractual assurances from Parsons that all the information and data gathered is owned by the County, has been given to the County and no one associated with the Parsons/Leytham/Go Hillsborough campaign can hand any of this rich information collected with taxpayer dollars to anyone except the county. That ensures that anyone may access any and all the information collected with taxpayer dollars via Statute 119 public records requests. 

The county commissioners must step up to protect the taxpayers and hold themselves accountable.

The county commissioners must terminate the tainted Parsons contract immediately.

No more taxpayer money should go to Parsons and all activity with Parsons should be stopped. Tainted Parsons should not be brought back at taxpayer expense to present any plan created through this flawed and corrupted process. 

The PLG was the group instrumental in creating the Go Hillsborough debacle. We now know the PLG has been compromised and corrupted too. We always said that way too much of the PLG effort was being orchestrated behind the green curtain, outside of Sunshine with little transparency. The PLG must be part of the law enforcement investigation. 

The county commissioners must terminate the Parsons contract immediately, cancel the November 5 PLG meeting, shut down the PLG and end the phony Go Hillsborough campaign.

Because it's all been corrupted.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bring Back Integrity, Remove Merrill from the Transportation Initiative

It is unfortunate that the county commissioners voted at the October 7 BOCC meeting to bring tainted Parsons Brinckerhoff back to present their tainted Go Hillsborough plan at the November 5 Transportation Policy Leadership Ship Group Meeting. The tainted Parsons contract should have been terminated instead. 

The taxpayers are now forced to pay tainted Parsons hundreds of thousands of dollars more while they and the county are being investigated by law enforcement. How tone deaf is that? As we posted previously, the Parsons contract is Risky Business.

We now wonder what County Administrator Mike Merrill may be orchestrating between now and November 5. What buttons and levers are being pushed by the Wizard of Oz behind the green curtain and outside of Sunshine, especially since the commissioners ridiculously scheduled a workshop immediately after the November 5 PLG meeting. What are these folks thinking?

In this TBT article published recently Merrill sounded off:
County Administrator Mike Merrill said part of the problem stems from the ease with which opponents can organize, while backers — who range from homeowner associations to chambers of commerce to concerned citizens — lack a unified voice.
"What they really need to do is let commissioners know that this is very important to them," Merrill said. "Because, mostly, all the board is hearing from mostly is this small band of folks that have been hammering away." (emphasis mine)
How can Merrill honestly make a statement like that?

Merrill has been touring the county for the last year and a half like an unelected County Mayor making presentations pushing for another huge sales tax referendum.  

The presentation Merrill presented titled "A Comprehensive Mobility Proposal can be found here. 

Fourteen pages of Merrill's 35 page presentation is about fixed guideways with numerous pictures of high cost rail, including this one that looks like an accident waiting to happen and  a way to increase congestion.
From Merrill's presentation - train, car lane and bike lane
 An accident waiting to happen
Just THREE pages of Merrill's 35 page Mobility presentation is non-transit needs. It's called "non-transit" and not road needs because that bucket is much more than desperately needed road repaving, road improvements and road projects. The non-transit needs includes sidewalks, bike lanes, trails and expensive complete streets.

From a public records request submitted, I received a list of the organizations that the transportation tax hike presentations were made to. That list can be found here. Note that the tab of the spreadsheet is titled "Coordination meetings". Is that legal?
Merrill's "Coordination Meetings" with local power brokers
and so-called stakeholders
Merrill, his deputy Lucia Garsys and Parsons Brinckerhoff's Bob Clifford have presented to all the local power brokers. County and city of Tampa staff also participated in those meetings. Hagan participated in some of the power broker meetings as well we understand.

Some of those power broker meetings with Merrill, Hagan, other county staffers and city of Tampa staffers were private and not open to the general public. The private advocacy campaign to support a sales tax hike referendum was discussed with county and city of Tampa staff - such as raising money, who would lead the advocacy campaign and when would the campaign start. Discussing an advocacy campaign in these meetings goes way beyond the bounds of educating or reaching out to stakeholders for their input about the transportation issue. 

To digress for a moment. What exactly was said at those meetings? Who has been already been trying to raise money for an advocacy campaign for a sales tax hike referendum that is not even been on the ballot? Have there been any violations of Sunshine laws? Have there been any violations of our electioneering laws? It is ILLEGAL for Merrill, county staff or city of Tampa staff to be discussing or "coordinating" about an advocacy campaign. The law enforcement investigation must find out if any illegal or unethical activity occurred at any of these meetings - perhaps they need to interview those who participated and attended.

Merrill and company presented to numerous taxpayer funded entities, the Chambers, the leader of the rail cartel - Tampa Bay Partnership, the Downtown Partnership, the leaders of civic and community associations, engineering groups and homeowners associations. 

Merrill even presented to 2 partisan Democrat groups. Is that legal or ethical for the County Administrator to be making policy making presentations to a partisan group and to only one political party?

Merrill used his County Administrator power as if he was an elected policy maker to speak to all these groups, organizations and associations and push for a huge sales tax hike. Merrill and company used their "bully pulpit" to speak to thousands of people in an attempt to garner support for a huge sales tax hike referendum.

Now Merrill complains whines that all those people he presented to, and somehow he assumes are all backers of his huge tax hike, lack a unified voice. That is a ridiculous assumption and a ridiculous position. Merrill needs to stop blaming others for the mess he helped create and that occurred on his watch. 

The reality is Merrill and company have been trying to sell a bad, flawed product created by a flawed, crony, unethical and perhaps illegal process. 

Proposing a huge tax hike for a plan that does not exist is totally backwards to any true project management/program management methodology. The reason this effort is so backwards is because the answer was already decided at the beginning. The County handed Parsons a Work Order issued under an umbrella Miscellaneous ENGINEERING Services contract procured through a CCNA process intended for ENGINEERING Services, with a Scope of Work titled "Hillsborough County Transportation REFERENDUM Support".

No wonder there is no unified voice of support. Who wants to back a huge sales tax hike  proposed by the Merrill/Clifford/Leytham team that is now under a law enforcement investigation? 

Merrill should never have been "handed" responsibility for the critical but politically charged transportation issue in January 2014. How did that even happen? 

Somehow Merrill "magically" become the facilitator of the Transportation Policy Leadership Group initiative after Herb Marlowe, the facilitator the county hired in June 2013, left in December 2013. The county commissioners never publicly discussed, never voted on or never took any formal action in the Sunshine to appoint or assign Merrill total responsibility for the transportation initiative. 

That decision was done behind the green curtain and outside of Sunshine. Why? Perhaps because we have separation of powers in our County Charter and the electeds cannot delegate their policy making power to the County Administrator, an unelected bureaucrat.

The County Administrator's role is to implement the policies decided by the electeds. Of course he can provide advice and recommendations to the county commissioners. However it is not the role of the County Administrator, an unelected bureaucrat accountable to no voter, to run around the county on the taxpayer dime acting like a policy maker. 

Merrill had to expand our local government and hire numerous high level staff to do his day job while he focused on transportation. 

At the same time the county was doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to politically well connected PR lobbyist Beth Leytham via the crony Parsons no bid contract, Merrill hired a new county Communications Director, another brand new high level staff position. While Merrill grows his bureaucracy, the county refuses to appropriately fund our roads and infrastructure.

Merrill is tainted because he's been front and center of this entire transportation initiative mess. His credibility on the transportation issue is shot and trust has been lost.

Merrill has turned the policy making power totally upside down at County Center and that must stop.

The county commissioners must protect the taxpayers and take back control and leadership of our local transportation issue. 

The county commissioners must disengage themselves from the cronies, the lobbyists and the special interests pushing a sales tax hike agenda.

The county commissioners must remove Mike Merrill from the transportation issue.

Because integrity must be brought back to the transportation issue.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Kriseman in a bind on the Rays – Deal or no deal?

Who will Kriseman really be negotiating for when he meets with the Rays St. Petersburg or his ego?

St. Petersburg, FL
Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb, PhD
Coauthor of: So You Want to Blog

In a not too surprising turn of events, St. Pete City Council approved the Kennedy Plan allowing the Rays to look for a new stadium outside the City.

You would think just getting the controlling political body to agree to let the Rays look would be a victory, but Kriseman started to poo poo the deal from the get-go.

"Typically, you don't see offers get better with time. So that's a concern. The other concern is that the amount that the Rays are being asked to pay is more than they were asked to pay the first time," Kriseman said after the vote.

Actually, deals do get better with time, especially when the other party, the Rays, have a bit of a time crunch themselves.

Add to that Kevin King, Kriseman's Chief of staff comment regarding the Mayor's view: "He'll attend the meeting, but whatever happens, he won't be reduced to playing messenger.  He doesn't have to do anything," King said. "He has to be on board, too."


See the whole back story in Charlie Fargo's Tampa Bay Times Article Third time the charm? St. Pete City Council considers another deal with Tampa Bay Rays.

Council member Charlie Gerdes plan, which I personally liked, never got a hearing, so he voted against the Kennedy deal. Don't read too much into the Gerdes vote. This way, City Council has a fallback position if they need it.

The chances the Rays can get out of the Trop by 2020 are small so the likelihood they would pay out the whole $33 million of the Kennedy plan is also small. Even if they did and if their bright shiny new stadium was full of beaming fans wouldn't it be worth it?

They wouldn't blink at $33 million for a player they wanted.

What we have now is a Mayor with a wounded ego, a chief of staff who can't seem to keep his mouth shut, a City Council Chair that switched sides and a baseball team that has a tough decision to make.

The Rays would be smart to grab this deal and get the process they have longed for locked in and started.
Trying to play Gerdes against Kennedy would be a big mistake and trying to play the Mayor against City Council would be really stupid.

E-mail Doc at mail 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.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

BP money for the arts a bad deal for everyone

The decision on where and how to use the BP funds is critical.

St. Petersburg, FL
Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Coauthor of: So You Want Blog.
A long time ago I was a member of a Southern Baptist church in west St. Pete. One of the widows passed away and left a rather large bequest. This particular church while not really struggling was like most not financially flush.

The ensuing battle between the various factions, the choir wanted new robes; the kitchen ministry wanted all new silver cutlery; the grounds' people wanted new equipment; the roof needed repair, some wanted new hymnals or pews and the list added up to more than even the generous bequest provided.

The ensuing battle left members upset and angry. Some even left the church.

I remember being in the pastor's office as he sat behind his desk, head in his hands and tears in his eyes saying I wish the money had never been given.   

I doubt if Mayor Kriseman or any City Council members really feel like my former pastor, but the battle over the BP money is shaping up to be very similar.

The issue here should be the greater good for the long term.

This money is coming as a result of the greatest environmental disaster ever. The long-term results of the BP oil spill may not be known for decades.

The decision on where and how to use these funds is critical and will say a lot about who St. Petersburg is as a community.

 Take the arts, for example.

The proposal to create a $1 million endowment for the arts has the arts people salivating.

I think it is a really poor use of the BP funds and in the end will do the arts community more harm than good.

Look at the most-recent effort by the Kriseman administration to create a "self-sustaining" sustaining" arts community.

 Let me decode that for you, they want the arts community to no longer be a budget line item they have to deal with every year. An endowment is a great step in that direction.

Now, every year at budget time when the arts community makes their annual sackcloth and ashes begging visit to the administration and City council, they will be pointed to their million-dollar endowment as their funding source.

What makes it an even worse use of the BP money is the Kriseman administration wastes these funds padding the City budget.

A $1 million-dollar endowment will produce around $40 to $50 thousand dollars year and will probably come with some serious strings attached. The arts people can raise that amount of money every year with a bake sale and a silent auction.

Point that same $1 million-dollar endowment at a fund to help struggling schools and public education in St. Petersburg, and you get an enduring legacy of changed lives.

As I remember it, the Church ended up giving most of the money to world missions and the choir got some new, but not too fancy robes.

There is a lesson in all of that.

E-mail Doc at mail 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.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Rays Second Season gets rolling

The really big missing piece here is leadership from Mayor Rick Kriseman.

St. Petersburg, Fl
Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Coauthor of: So You Want Blog.
For background see my Post The Rays and the Second Season

Widely reported by print and social media St. Pete City Council members are talking baseball one on one with Pinellas County Commissioners. Just the thought of Jim Kennedy and Janet Long having a conversation about anything should be enough to send shivers up your spine.

For detail see Charlie Fargo Tampa Bay Times Longtime foes of Tampa Bay Rays stadium deal mulling options.

The Plans:
The Kennedy Plan, The Kornell Plan, The Gerdes Plan, The Kriseman Plan, the Tampa Times Plan and The Rays Plan which is almost the same as the Kriseman plan. There are a couple of more Council members with "ideas" if not plans.

The Threats:
County Commission says tourist tax dollars in play.
The Rays say it's the last deal or no deal.
The Rays don't want to negotiate with eight people (City Council)
The Rays won't pony up any more money, so they say.

There is not a whole lot of detail leaking out about the Council members plans and the Rays are being a bit coy at the moment. All the drama will begin to unfold at the October 22 St. Pete City Council meeting.

The Rays saga is starting to play out like a poorly scripted episode of the FOX series Empire.

The missing piece here is leadership from Mayor Rick Kriseman. For something seemingly this big to get this far out of control Kriseman has to take the fall.

Kriseman, who continues to prove he much more interested in things shiny he can hang his name on than substance, is the one who let all of this disintegrate into a City Council cat fight. If the Mayor had been a bit more willing to share the glory with City Council, the Rays would probably have a deal, and everyone could be focusing on something really important.

The clock is ticking. That according to the County Commission as the Atlanta Braves spring training complex nears a decision point. However, the clock is also ticking for the Rays.

As things continue to unfold in Tampa, developers and big-money players have to be asking themselves would a huge investment in baseball really be worth it. What if we make that investment, and the same 13,000 or so fans are the only ones who show up?

Remember what Bud Selig (MLB Commissioner) said, this is not a major-league baseball market. He said that almost 30 years ago and so far he was right. 

So be sure to follow the Rays second season on TV.

Unlike major league baseball games which you must have ESPN or some pay channel to see most of them, the Rays second season is available free on your cable system Bright House Channel 641, Verizon Channel 20, WOW channel 15. Check St. Pete City Council for times and replays. 

E-mail Doc at mail 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.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

PSTA trolling for dollars in Washington

Should the Feds hand Brad Miller more Federal money?

St. Petersburg, Fl
Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Coauthor of: So You Want Blog. 

There are times when you question people's judgment and then there are times you just scratch your head and smile. This article in the Tampa Bay Times by Tony Marrero: Pinellas officials head to D.C. in search of funds for St. Pete rapid bus line caught my eye.

PSTA CEO Brad Miller hauled County Commissioner Janet Long and St. Pete City Councilmember Darden Rice up to Washington to meet with Representatives David Jolly, Kathy Castor, Senator Bill Nelson and someone from Marco Rubio's office to talk about getting some federal money for PSTA projects.

If you don't follow the goings on at PSTA, this might seem like a worthwhile effort since PSTA is pretty much capped out on tax revenue and Federal dollars for public transit have dried up.

Brad Miller going to Washington to ask for Federal Dollars is kind of like the guy who just got arrested for breaking into your house sending someone by to knock on your door and ask if you could help with his bail.

Miller, who misused federal funds to try to get even more of your tax money in the GreenLight sales tax debacle and then lied to the PSTA Board, would likely be the last person any federal or state politician would be excited about handing federal grant dollars.

From 10 News Investigates:

County Commissioner Janet long, recently laughingly reappointed to the PSTA Board, gave Miller a bad review and then would not support his removal.  See my Post Janet Long reelected to serve 3 more years on PSTA Board.

You can check out their evaluations of Miller:

Darden Rice, a long-time Miller supporter, just can't seem to see any fault with Miller's actions.

Even with PSTA's mounting financial problems, it is hard to rationalize how Long and Rice could look at US House Members, a Senator and a Senator's Representative with a straight face and ask for more money to be managed by the same staff that misused the last large federal grant.

Apparently Long and Rice must feel that the people in Washington are so isolated inside the beltway that they are oblivious to what is going on at the ground level in Pinellas County.

For now, Miller has seven months to "improve his performance." Not exactly sure what that means but one might assume figuring out more ways not to get caught misusing PSTA funds.

The PSTA Board should be required to clean up the PSTA staff before any more federal or state money flows into the coffers. The Board's lack of oversight and the backbone to deal with issues like Miller's dalliances are the real reasons public transit in Pinellas County lacks public trust.

If you would like to send a copy of this Post to your Florida Representatives and Senator, here is the contact information.
You can just copy the Post URL at the top of the screen, or copy the whole Post and paste into their email form.

Representative David Jolly:

E-mail Doc at mail 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.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Go Hillsborough and the Commissioners "Bully" Pulpit

Go Hillsborough was on the agenda at Wednesday's BOCC meeting. The Eye was there.

An archived video of this meeting can be found at HTV. Click on Archived Meetings on the left then search for BOCC Regular Meeting and the date 10/7/2015. There are two links. Click the bottom link where the meeting starts.

Please watch the public comments and then move forward to about 1:13 where the Go Hillsborough agenda item discussion begins. Click the top link to where the meeting continues.

Watch and you can come to your own conclusions about some of the statements made by some of these elected officials.

After the meeting, a few who attended weighed in with some comments.

Some takeaways and commentary from the meeting:

The Director of Procurement Services told us that the term "Referendum" used in the work order handed to Parsons was a BENIGN word that staff used. 

According to Websters Dictionary, some definitions of benign are "harmless, gracious, favorable". Referendum, according to Websters is "an event in which people of a county, state, etc. VOTE for or against a specific issue". 

The term Referendum is NOT benign. It equates to an election and that is POLITICAL.

The Director of Procurement also stated because of the short time frame requested to get the work done in 6 months (by March 2015), the CCNA process was appropriate. That's ridiculous considering the reality of where were are today over a year later - we have a huge tax proposal and NO plan. Reality is we have a mess that happens when the county simply hands a million dollar blank check to Parsons with a scope of work titled "Hillsborough County Transportation Referendum Support".

The reality of where we are today is what happens when there is nothing documented - NO bid, NO RFP, NO requirements and NO adequate oversight and NO adequate project management. True project management understands that the requirements and expectations documented at the start of a project is most important. With no requirements, the taxpayers nor the commissioners can determine the success of spending $1.35 Million taxpayer dollars for an effort that has taken too long and cost too much.

Wednesday's meeting ironically started off with a commendation from Sandy Murman recognizing October as Bullying Prevention Month. Were some of the commissioners sleeping during the commendation and missed the message?

In addition, when public comment is announced, Chairwoman Murman tells the audience the comments may not be directed personally against a commissioner or staff member but rather directed at the ISSUES.

The commissioners hear that statement at every meeting and know the rules whether they were paying attention at the time or not.

Some Alynsky style PR tactics were used by some commissioners to make accusations about a "few" ideologues making " bogus claims of cronyism and impropriety." Apparently, the county was so concerned about those "bogus claims" that they asked the Sheriff's office to investigate. 

Some of those so-called "ideologues" were proposing a Plan B to the commissioners during public comment. The "ideologues" who spoke were dealing with the issues of Go Hillsborough and transportation not name calling.

Did a text message not get received in time to alter the commissioner's script he was reading? 

We note that finally some commissioners were wondering why the cost of Go Hillsborough was so high. However, they have no one to blame but themselves. The Eye's been asking that question since last September and could never get an answer from county staff or commissioners. Isn't providing oversight a basic responsibility of our county commissioners?

When the PLG/county commissioners voted last August to hire Parsons Brinckerhoff, not one county commissioner or elected official asked, in the Sunshine, how much the effort was going to cost. County Administrator Mike Merrill did not even bring it up and he's the budget guy. Merrill knows how to suddenly "find" money when needed so we assume the commissioners knew Merrill would "find" whatever monies were needed.  

Vote to spend gobs of money on "something" without knowing it's cost or asking specifically what work we as taxpayers were actually going to pay for. Horrible way to govern. 

Perhaps the commissioners already knew the cost and it was already baked in but did not want to talk about such a high cost last August. Did the county commissioners get the text message below, thanks to Noah Pransky's 10 Investigates reporting, sent from PR lobbyist Beth Leytham to County Administrator Mike Merrill on 8/19/2014?

The commissioners had other opportunities where they could have questioned the costs but did not. 

The commissioners voted in January to waive the Parsons work order limit of $500K and double the work order amount to almost a million dollars. That vote was rammed through on the Consent Agenda. The Consent Agenda enables the commissioners to approve a long list of items with a single vote. It also prevents any discussion about any single item. Commissioners can remove items from the Consent Agenda and move the item to the Regular Agenda for discussion. No commissioner asked for that item to be removed from the Consent Agenda for a discussion before voting. Another lost opportunity to inquire why a public engagement effort was costing taxpayers a million bucks.

In July the PLG, including all the county commissioners voted to hand the Parsons/Leytham team $350K more of our tax dollars. Again, the commissioners did not question the cost, even as this effort became a run away train wreck taking way too long and being way over budget.

If the commissioners cannot manage $1.35 million and they can not answer why Go Hillsborough campaign costs so much, who wants to give them BILLIONS more to spend?

So the question of the day is why did this effort cost taxpayers $1.35 Million? There's NO engineer of record named or real engineering work being done. Instead, there is hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign work enriching Beth Leytham, a politically well connected PR lobbyist with very close ties to Mayor Buckhorn and Commissioner Hagan. 

Who else did this contract enrich? The taxpayers deserve to know to whom and where every dime of the $1.35 million went. 

The Sheriff needs to follow the money trail as well as the process trail because the Parsons contract is risky business to taxpayers.

The commissioners decided to do nothing until the Sheriff's investigation was completed. They also decided to have Parsons come back to the 11/5 PLG meeting to present their final work product. Who knows what will happen at that meeting.

The commissioners will then conduct a workshop for further discussion on topics we have been asking for months. What's their Plan B? What other funding options besides a sales tax hike can fund our roads and transportation. 

Why weren't the commissioners asking questions about other funding options months ago? Why weren't the commissioners seriously focusing on a 10 year feasible plan rather than a 30 year boondoggle plan? Why didn't the commissioners ask these questions of the Merrill/Parsons/Leytham team at the June 11 meeting when all that team did was propose a 30 year sales tax hike for a plan that did not exist?

As we have stated numerous times, no true consultant ever proposes only one, take it or leave it, option, to their clients. They always offer multiple options and scenarios.                                      

At the meeting, Commissioner White made a motion to terminate the Parsons contract but it failed 6-1. Shameful that failed because Parsons should have been fired. There's more questions, issues and misdeeds with this Go Hillsborough mess than just how they got the contract. 

The Internal Auditor stated at the meeting that a full audit would take 4-6 months. We assume a more extensive law enforcement investigation may take longer. The Sheriff's  investigation timeline is unknown. 

With the commissioners keeping the crony Parsons/Letham Go Hillsborough team going, some commissioners think the debacle can stay on its original timeline for getting on the ballot. That sounds more like desperation than logical thinking. 

Some commissioners have joined the Tribune in circling the wagons to salvage Go Hillsborough. But when some commissioners are reduced to using bully tactics from their bully pulpit, ironically during anti-bullying month, against constituents who ask serious questions, have valid concerns, disagree with them, offer alternatives.....

Someone must be running scared. 

Commuter Rail may be an option

CSX would merely make the tracks available for lease through a deal with State the rest would be up to the local community.

St. Petersburg, Fl
Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Coauthor of: So You Want Blog.

CSX has thrown its hat into the tumultuous ring of Tampa Bay area public transit. 

You can read the details in: Caitin Johnston's piece in the Tampa Bay Times, CSX's offer finally opens the door to commuter rail in Tampa Bay.

Carving an interesting path through Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties and connecting the down towns of Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg, these CSX tracks could form a backbone to move commuters over fairly large distances.

For now, the CSX offers to make certain lines available do open a new and interesting window of discussion. The commuter rail system would, by its very nature, be inter modal requiring both bus and possibly light rail to carry short distance and last mile traffic.

There is a host of issues as Caitin Johnston points out, the most difficult overcoming the political parochialism that will always accompany an effort like the CSX offering proposes.

CSX would merely make the tracks available for lease through a deal with the State the rest would be up to the local community.

The initial thought is to establish yet another regional board made up of elected officials to try to bring a plan together.

These Boards of elected officials have proven to be virtually useless. They accomplish little beyond talk are poor managers, they are prone to encourage corruption, if not among themselves, then among the organizational staffs they create and their hired consultants.

Public transportation would be better served if TBARTA were disbanded, and the Hillsborough and Pinellas County transit authority boards were reconstituted with a majority of non elected officials.

The real issue here before any of this ever gets off the ground is to make sure we don't have the same-old  people, political groups, consultants, influence peddlers and politicians who want to get their hands into the money flow running this effort.

If they do commuter rail will likely go the way of GreenLight Pinellas, Go Hillsborough and other transit initiatives.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Is CSX Trying to Sell its High Priced Junk to Us?

CSX is offering to sell some of its under utilized tracks around Tampa Bay to the Florida Department of Transportation.
There are 97 miles of railroad track connecting the downtowns of Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa. The steel grating links Tampa International Airport to the University of South Florida, stretches across four counties and reaches as far north as Brooksville.
Freight trains run on those tracks now. But they could, one day, form the spine of a passenger rail system that would finally connect Tampa Bay — and ease the region's dependence on roads.
This is no pie-in-the-sky scenario. It's an idea gaining sudden momentum because railroad giant CSX Corp. is shopping around two segments of its Tampa Bay routes.
 CSX is interested in selling two lines.
One of the rail lines offered by CSX is the "Clearwater line." It stretches from downtown St. Petersburg, climbs northwest through Pinellas County to downtown Clearwater, veers to Oldsmar, then runs east past Tampa International Airport and ends near downtown Tampa, in Ybor City.
The second route is the "Brooksville line." It starts in Tampa, juts north from the first line, passes by USF, cuts through Land O'Lakes in Pasco County and finishes in central Hernando County, near Brooksville.
Urged by local leaders, CSX analyzed its lines and found that those two routes carried minimal freight traffic and could be used for passenger rail.
Here's where the tracks run CSX wants to unload.

CSX rail lines for sale
(in red and blue)
We should note a few things.

This is not a light rail solution. If realized, this will be a commuter rail solution. That is, big, heavy, noisy, diesel trains, on existing CSX tracks that were originally built for efficient movement of freight. It is not commuters, or people heading to the ball game or the art museums or the latest event in a downtown park.. Want to convert to light rail? Not going to happen.

These tracks are where they are. They are not optimized for Transit Oriented Development, if anyone believes that myth. They do connect the downtowns of Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater, as well as Tampa airport and USF or at least close enough, but in a rather meandering way. They're not helping major residential communities such as Brandon, Fishhawk, Keystone-Odessa or New Tampa, and misses major job corridors around Westshore, I-4, I-75, and Pinellas Gateway.  Good for Brooksville, nothing for Brandon.

The only segment worth anything for commuters is the downtown Tampa - USF, and perhaps up to Land O' Lakes. The rest is pretty worthless, but its a packaged deal from CSX. The Tampa - Clearwater - St. Petersburg route will be too time consuming for most who already have a car and will still be able to drive where they want in less time. The downtown Tampa to airport route suffers as well, unless you have time for a not so scenic circuitous route.

There are other CSX tracks in the Tampa Bay area that are not currently listed for sale. Namely a line that from downtown Tampa, paralleling the Selmon Crosstown south of Gandy into the Port Tampa City area, as well as those in the east county Brandon area. Expect those to be offered for a nice price, but after the initial sale of the junk.

But it does go all the up to Brooksville! I guess the urbanist crowd is eager to sell the utopian dream of Transit Oriented Development to Brooksville.
Urged by local leaders, CSX analyzed its lines and found that those two routes carried minimal freight traffic and could be used for passenger rail.
In other words, at best CSX does not need these lines, and may be money losers for them.  If they can dump those lines and get a top price from the FDOT, perhaps several times anyone else will pay, and we will let them continue to use the same lines with no liability (see Sunrail), why not?

Who's the sucker that wants to buy them?

Also, it's likely that CSX will want to retain some rights or lease back some ability to continue to run freight on these lines, likely constraining transit schedules.

At this stage, costs, ridership and timelines are unknown. We do know that Orlando's SunRail has regularly missed ridership estimates, and has no long term funding source beyond the existing state of Florida and now some new federal subsidies. Tri-Rail in South Florida is continually subsidized by the state as well, and neither has made any difference in congestion relief.

CSX will not sell its lines to local municipalities, only to the FDOT, so it will take a lot unforeseen planning and coordination into all our Tampa Bay transportation related "plans" across several Tampa Bay counties and FDOT to bring this to fruition. Don't hold your breath.

The Times editorial writers are a bit more cautious.
The prospect holds some allure. With some modification and addition, it could link the University of South Florida with a multimodal transit hub in downtown Tampa, with future high-speed connections to Central Florida and light rail or modern tram connections to West Shore, Gateway and downtown St. Petersburg. A spur line that runs down to the northern edge of Tampa International Airport could theoretically link air passenger traffic to Clearwater and USF. Westchase residents could commute quickly to downtown Tampa and USF. Depending on the sale price, right of way costs could be significantly lower than most alternatives.
But none of those potential advantages necessarily justifies what could turn out to be a suboptimal rail network — even if federal and state governments shoulder three-quarters of the cost, as they did with SunRail. Other than for the USF-downtown Tampa leg, ridership levels could be weak for decades.
Most important of all, the CSX network bypasses what transit experts call the "home run line" — a direct, dense light rail route over the Howard Frankland Bridge between downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg that includes the area's major employment and residential hubs as well as TIA. Commuter rail systems are too heavy to cross the Howard Frankland. The CSX purchase will work only if it augments reasonably quick construction of that home run line.
"[R]idership levels could be weak for decades." A brief awakening from the rail cheerleaders.

Note the lack of the "home run line" between Tampa and St. Petersburg, crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge. We can expect rail proponents to claim that FDOT has agreed to beef up the transit corridor for their plans to replace the north bound span in the next 10 years or so, and adding commuter rail is no big deal.  But don't expect them to cite any costs. The transit corridor FDOT committed to to was for managed bus toll lanes, which is a manageable cost we support. To beef up the structure to add light rail adds nearly $1B to the HFB plans. Commuter rail is even heavier, traveling faster, so we can expect the costs to be even more than light rail. Regardless, any rail solution over the HFB is a non-starter as it will reduce capacity for hurricane evacuation routes, and will have to be shut down in any wind conditions exceeding 35 mph for light rail.

The fundamental problem of rail is it goes where rail goes, not where people go. These CSX lines were designed to move freight, and to repurpose them to move people where people want to go will be costly. If SunRail and Tri-Rail are any guidance, it won't help with their daily commute or relieve congestion, and will continue to be a drain on the taxpayer and the vast majority of residents who will not regular ride on this rail.

It's a suckers bet. CSX is trying to unload its junk on us.

Keep away from a bad deal, unless your goal is to urbanize Brooksville around a commuter rail station.

The Rays and the Second Season

As the fall negotiating season opens, the Rays management wants to avoid a repeat of past performances.

St. Petersburg, Fl
Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Coauthor of: So You Want Blog.

For the last few years, the Tampa Bay Rays have been playing four seasons in St. Petersburg.

There is spring training, the regular season, the fall politics season and the winter negotiating season.

You are probably pretty familiar with spring training and the regular season, the fall political season and the winter negotiating season maybe not so much.

The fall political season is that period where the St. Pete City Council, the Pinellas County Commission, Tampa and to some degree Hillsborough County tries to get their various proposals, positions, money and ducks in a row.

Typically, there are a lot of pitches, mostly softballs, a few strikes and a lot of outs.

This year the tension between the Mayor Rick Kriseman, Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes and City Council has boiled over into the St. Pete City Council elections where at least one media outlet, the Tampa Bay Times, has tried to make the District Seven City Council race all about baseball.

The Second Season will actually kick off later this month when a new proposal from City Council is supposed to surface on October 15th, and we may find out if Mayor Kriseman is going to throw hard balls by refusing to do the studies the City Council has requested or refuse to present the City Council proposal.

The Rays will hold their wrap-up  news conference later this week, and you can look for some preliminary public talks with the Mayor and someone from the Rays probably in a month or so. The Mayor's office would like everyone to think some talks have been ongoing, but I think that is not likely.

The other players, The Pinellas County Commission and the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council are now touting a mega sized spring training initiative at Toytown the former landfill (dump) and making soft but definitely threatening noises to move tourist tax revenue from a Rays stadium to the dump... err landfill.

Most curious has been the lack of any major-league  baseball interest from Hillsborough County or Mayor Kriseman's buddy Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Since Jeff Vinik indicated that baseball was not the "best and highest" use of his downtown development property a major-league baseball stadium has not been a hot topic across the Bay.

Look for some high and outside pitches from across the Bay just to keep things interesting, but unless a really deep pocked angel shows up or MLB becomes so disgusted with St. Pete and Pinellas County they are willing to pony up some serious money and/or concessions the pickens for a new stadium in Hillsborough may be a bit slim.

As the fall politics season wraps up and City Council and the Mayor try to get a unified game plan in place things could get a bit testy. Kriseman has not had a political win in some time and getting a Rays deal to look for a new stadium on his terms would be a big win.

If Charlie Gerdes can be the one who puts the Rays stadium deal together, the Mayor and his dream team will continue to look like the ineffective bunch the really are.

As the fall negotiating season opens, the Rays management from President Brian Auld right on down want to avoid a repeat of past performances where they got asked questions they could not or did not want to answer and ended up in political fights, they 1) had no interest in and 2) could not win.

Just given the Rays trepidation and speed at which baseball approaches problems like the Ray's stadium dilemma, don't look for much to happen before the November election, and if that goes badly it could be January before any really substantive talks result in a new and acceptable proposal.

Meanwhile, the spring training proposal for Toytown will continue to move along.

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Contributor: Waterfront Charter Amendment (Vote on The Pier), Carly Fiorina for President

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Tribune Can't Help "Fix' Go Hillsborough Mess, Tribune is Part of the Mess

The Tribune's collusion to salvage the Go Hillsborough mess they helped perpetuate is now raging. This is a PR strategy and we know who's PR strategy it is.

The Tribune reports today that they finally found someone to publicly defend the crony debacle:
In the three weeks since the report aired, no group of supporters has emerged to defend the transportation effort. Business leaders, who supported a failed transportation referendum in 2010 and have been lobbying for another effort to alleviate traffic congestion, have been silent.
That changed Monday when Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has not backed off its support for a comprehensive transportation program.
Rohrlack was reacting to an article last week in the local weekly newspaper, La Gaceta, that said the chamber was backing away from Go Hillsborough in light of the controversy. Rohrlack said the report was incorrect. 
“The chamber has not blinked. We continue to move forward on transportation,” he said.
The chamber has two committees working on transportation issues, Rohrlack said, and chamber leaders have been communicating with county staff throughout this year’s Go Hillsborough process and during many rounds of transportation meetings in preceding years.
“We’re going to work together and do something on transportation,” Rohrlack said. “We’ve been open and honest talking to the county. We’ve encouraged them to do this and we’ve been part of the discussion.”
Reminder:  the Chambers have been on the LOSING side of every transportation referendum in the Tampa Bay Area. Isn't insanity defined as continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome?

Perhaps a different tactic is needed. The Chamber should get out of their downtown bubble and talk to those who actually vote.

County Administrator Mike Merrill, acting in his new role undertaken in January 2014 as an unelected County Mayor, other county and city staff and some county commissioners have spoken about Go Hillsborough at private Chamber meetings. Elected county commissioners can advocate for tax increases and policies all day long but staffers and unelected bureaucrats cannot. Things can get quite messy in those "private" meetings......between special interests and staffers.

The Merrill/Leytham/Clifford team used a poll conducted 6 months ago with a margin of error of 4% that deceptively (how the questions were asked) reflected 52% would support a 1/2% sales tax increase. With that margin of error, there may not have even been a majority then to support a tax increase at that time. 

Based on a flimsy poll where they filtered the poll details from the PLG, a not very big participation rate from the public in the Go Hillsborough "public engagement" effort, no engineering done, no technical analysis done, no priorities provided, this team proposed a huge 30 year tax and NO transportation plan. 

Only in the public sector can crony consultants being paid $1.35 MILLION of taxpayer monies offer only one solution, a 30 year tax hike with no plan, to their clients. Real consultants never do that. In the private sector, these consultants would be fired and a refund demanded.

This is how entrenched special interests, the Tribune, the Times and other cronies operate. They have become insiders with an entrenched bureaucracy down at County Center. And according to Noah's reporting, the "Queen of Influence" Leytham, who has gotten hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars directed her way from the county, the city of Tampa, other taxpayer funded agencies, is their Gatekeeper for access.

The crony team of Merrill/Leytham/Clifford team is so entrenched that they unilaterally decided to bring back the full 1% sales tax because that's what they wanted all along.

There wasn't even any repercussions from this outrageous behavior. A little drama at the county commission meeting but no action taken and no repercussions for violating the CCNA contract, violating the policy making powers held by the electeds and violating the trust of the people.

The Go Hillsborough August 17th public release under Leytham's name violated Parsons own CCNA contract. Their contract specifically states Parsons (or any of their subcontractors) cannot publish public statements without first getting prior written consent from the county. 

I asked for a copy of the county's written consent via a public records request on September 9, 2015. To date, I have heard nothing. If it existed, they could have easily provided a copy.

Are these cronies also so entrenched with the electeds? Only an INDEPENDENT investigation going back years can find out. The investigation must include former County Commissioner Mark Sharpe.

The Tribune is desperate now because they know "they" have lost the narrative. Therefore they use one of their other often used strategies:  collusion. They collude using their editorial page (perhaps written by the "Queen of Influence") Editorial: Raw politics intrude on Go Hillsborough transportation initiative with their front page reporting referenced above. 

The Tribune has been an insider inserting their own "raw political agenda" in this mess all along with their "too cozy" relationship with the "Queen of Influence" Beth Leytham. We cannot forget Leytham's text message dated August 13, 2014 to County Administrator Mike Merrill, now public thanks to Noah Pransky's investigative reporting. Based on other text messages between Leytham and Merrill included in Pransky's reporting, we're left wondering when Leytham texts Merrill to jump, does Merrill ask how high?

Why hasn't the Tribune "owned" up to their tight knit relationship with Leytham? 

Because they have invested so heavily in it....for how many years? 

The Tribune continues to peddle another "Queen of Influence" Leytham PR strategy - point fingers elsewhere (remember when pointing, three fingers are pointing back). 

The Tribune would like nothing better than to distract, distract, distract from the real issues at hand and continue bashing and pointing fingers at those who raise legitimate questions about this entirely flawed Go Hillsborough process. The Tribune strategy is nothing short of pure arrogance put on full display by the Tribune.

The Tribune is so invested in the Go Hillsborough debacle that they do not care "how" anything is done - they just want the huge tax. To them, the "ends" justifies the "means". 

There was a time when print journalists were actually curious about "questionable" activities, possible misdeeds in government, unethical behavior in government, wasteful government spending or possible corruption and would investigate such activities. 

Those days are dead in Hillsborough County.

The Tribune cannot circle their wagons fast enough to salvage Go Hillsborough.

The Tribune cannot help "fix" the Go Hillsborough mess.

The Tribune is part of the Go Hillsborough mess!