Sharpe was also a member of the HART Board when County Administrator Mike Merrill proposed, with zero public input, a hostile takeover of HART by all electeds in May 2014. As we posted about that proposed hostile takeover here in June 2014
County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who has been advocating for transit change for years, called the plan a "HART transplant" on Twitter. The changes will create a far more robust HART capable of running more buses, taking on larger projects and increasing opportunities for transit-oriented development, he said.Sharpe was a commissioner when the PLG voted on August 12, 2014 to hire a transportation expert to do public outreach and when Parsons Brinckherhoff was handed the million dollar no bid contract on September 5, 2014.
Something changed with the direction of the PLG between May 28, 2014 and August 12, 2014 and it was done all behind the scenes. As we posted here, Merrill stated at the May 28, 2014 PLG meeting that transit projects would be the focus at the next [June] PLG meeting and both he and Mayor Buckhorn specifically stated that rail was included.
WE ARE GOING TO FOCUS ON TRANSIT SPECIFICALLY NEXT MONTH, BUT WE'RE RECOGNIZING THAT IT'S A CHICKEN AND THE EGG.IF WE DON'T HAVE THE DENSITY, IF WE DON'T HAVE THE PROPER DEVELOPMENT PLANNING, THEN WE CAN'T CREATE THE KIND OF TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM THAT WE NEED TO SUPPORT ALL THE PEOPLE THAT WE WANT TO COME LIVE, WORK, AND PLAY IN OUR DOWNTOWN AREA.
BOB BUCKHORN: I THINK IT WOULD BE SOMETHING THAT — BECAUSE IF -- OBVIOUSLY, EVERYONE HAS SEEN THAT WE PUT A RAIL PROJECT ON THIS LIST, SO NO SURPRISE TO ANYBODY, IT'S GOING TO HAPPEN, WE'RE GOING TO GET THIS DONE.
WE WERE PLANNING FOR MORE OF A FOCUS ON TRANSIT IN OUR NEXT WORKSHOP AS THE MAYOR SAID, WE'VE GOT MASS TRANSIT RAIL ON OUR LIST.
LET ME JUST PREVIEW, AGAIN, OUR JUNE MEETING.WE'LL BE PRESENTING TO YOU THE FIRST PARTS OF THE BUSINESS PLAN, WHICH WILL INCLUDE ALL THE KEY ECONOMIC SPACES AND WHAT THOSE PROJECTS WILL COST; TRANSIT; AND A FURTHER MORE DETAILED DISCUSSION OF GOVERNANCE
BUT OUR PLAN IS AS SOON AS YOU GIVE US AN ENDORSEMENT ON THAT BUSINESS PLAN, WHICH, AGAIN, WILL HAVE PROJECTS, FINANCING, GOVERNANCE, WE'LL GO OUT AGAIN TO A MORE DETAILED PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT PROCESS WITH THE BUSINESS COMMUNITY AND THE REST OF THE COMMUNITY, SO THAT'S OUR PLAN FOR MOVING FORWARD WITH THIS.A business plan with projects, funding and governance was going to be presented at the June PLG meeting for a decision to start public engagement. None of that ever happened. Instead Merrill cancelled the June and July 2014 PLG meetings and suddenly in August was asking the PLG to vote to hire a consultant to do public outreach.
There was never any discussion or a vote by the PLG in the Sunshine for this total direction change. There was no transparency for what Merrill was doing behind the scenes between the May and August PLG meetings. It appears he orchestrated outside of Sunshine his plan for the Go Hillsborough campaign. Who was directing Merrill to make this total direction change the summer of 2014 - Beth Leytham, county commissioner(s), special interests? The only assumption one can make is Merrill orchestrated this direction change, with no transparency and behind the scenes, with the county commissioners because no county commissioner asked any questions why they were being asked to vote on hiring a consultant for public outreach. No one questioned what it would cost either.
The goings on down at County Center in August 2014 appears to be key.
Noah Pransky's first article about PR lobbyist Beth Leytham on September 14, 2015 titled The Gatekeeper included the text messages below of August 8 and August 13, 2014 between Merrill and Leytham. Note the August 13th text was one day AFTER the August 12th Transportation Policy Leadership Group meeting but before Parsons was handed the no bid contract.
|Text Messages from Leytham to Merrill August 8 & 13, 2014|
(click to enlarge)
Sharpe felt compelled almost immediately to forward that email to Merrill at 12:13 from his phone. Sharpe told Merrill the county needs a "media/messaging strategy" to respond to inaccuracies and introduce transportation facts.
|Sharpe email to Merrill on Aug. 13, 2014|
(click to enlarge)
As our blog post previously reported, we directly asked Sharpe for a copy of the AEComm transit assessment report on May 22nd. He refused to provide it at that time using the excuse that it was still a draft. That excuse does not hold water with our Florida Statute 119 Sunshine Laws regarding public records requests and we know Merrill has provided draft documents and information not yet complete requested by others via public records request. Merrill refused to even mention this assessment at his media briefing on July 29, 2014 so no media attention was brought to bear on it because it would totally blow their rail agenda.
We had to submit a Public Records Request to get the AEComm document.
Why is Sharpe, in his Aug. 13, 2014 email the day after the PLG voted to hire a transportation expert, and supposedly not a PR firm, worried about information that can sink campaigns? Was it because he knew the Go Hillsborough public engagement that was being orchestrated behind the scenes was really a campaign for another huge sales tax hike?
In Sharpe's email to Merrill, he stated he wanted a messaging strategy to introduce transportation facts. From what we now know about Go Hillsborough, that request is almost comical.
We have numerous posts regarding how flawed the Go Hillsborough campaign was. They introduced half-truths, ignored important information, made false claims, made claims with no facts to back up their claim, used misleading information and displayed misleading pictures at their meetings of traffic on I-5 in LA insinuating it was I-275 in Hillsborough County. Go Hillsborough was selective about the information they provided the public to advance their agenda that the only funding solution was another huge sales tax increase - that's why they proposed the tax before any plan. These tactics are not trivial, they are devastating - especially when the county has money to fund our roads and transportation needs but simply refuses to. These campaign tactics used by a crony PR firm, that cost taxpayers $1.3 million for the Go Hillsborough effort with little oversight, is what sinks campaigns and damages credibility.
Merrill responds to Sharpe's email the evening of August 13, 2014, conveniently after his text message exchange with Beth Leytham (see above) that afternoon.
|Merrill email to Sharpe on Aug. 13, 2014 |
(Click to enlarge)
The Merrill/Sharpe email thread can be found here.
How long has Leytham been directing Merrill what to do? Who's really running County Center? In what role was she directing him - as a PR lobbyist, a friend, a political consultant, a conduit for the media or special interests? Merrill works for the county commissioners, not Beth Leytham. Was a county commissioner instructing Leytham to tell Merrill what to do? Were there any violations of our Sunshine laws?
Disingenuously, Merrill told Pransky he did not know Leytham. The tone of the text messages between them prove otherwise.
Beth Leytham is best buds and has a very cozy relationship with Guidry of the Tribune and Hill of TBT. Was Leytham roping Merrill in with the media to collude and collaborate to push the sales tax hike campaign they both knew was about to start with Parsons Brinckerhoff?
Because next thing we know, as Pransky reported, Leytham sends Merrill her August 19 text message below telling him the transportation expert will come in with their own communication team in tow. Again, what role is Leytham playing directing Mike Merill what to do? Was she directing Merrill as a conduit from some county commissioners or from some special interests? Was Merrill acting like a lap dog for whatever Leytham wanted him to do?
Pransky also reported:
Leytham told 10Investigates she wasn’t looking out for her client or herself; she was merely looking out for the community.
“That (text) is exactly what it is on its face,” she said. “It is a communications strategy and it is a recommendation and information.”Leytham was "looking out for the community" with her expensive proposition? We don't think so. Public engagement was originally estimated to be about $200K but Leytham quotes over a million and, of course, she wanted a piece of those tax dollars.
And Voila! Merrill and the county hands Parsons Brinckerhoff, who happens to also be Leytham's client, a million dollar blank check no bid contract on September 5, 2014. It was never publicly disclosed by Parsons or the County that Parsons was bringing in their communication team in tow because the PLG had specifically stated they did not want a PR firm doing the public engagement. We now know who the "communications outreach consulting assistance" is that Merrill was pulling together - a communication consultant team of one - Beth Leytham.
Leytham immediately started directing the Go Hillsborough show and colluding with the local media propaganda from the get go. Pransky's investigative report included this September 19, 2014 text message thread between Leytham and Merrill
|Leytham/Merrill text message exchange of Sept. 19, 2014|
Isn't it disturbing that no county commissioner ever raised any concerns about the direct violation of their request to not hire a PR firm to do the public engagement? Isn't it disturbing that no county commissioner raised any concern about using the CCNA procurement process, a procurement process governed by state statute to procure professional engineering services, was used to hire the politically well connected PR lobbyist Leytham through the back door and was never publicly disclosed?
- August 12, 2014: PLG votes to hire transportation expert on August 12, 2014
- August 13, 2014:
- Leytham texts Merrill and directs him to contact the media
- Sharpe contacts Merrill about needing a communications strategy and his concern about what sinks a "campaign"
- Merrill responds to Sharpe that he is meeting with media (as directed by Leytham) and working on a solution for communications outreach consultant assistance
- August 19, 2014: Leytham texts Merrill that transportation expert brings their communication team in tow and quotes a cost of $1.2 million
- September 5, 2014: County hands Parsons a million dollar no bid contract with their communication team of one in tow - the politically well connected PR lobbyist Beth Leytham
- October 2015: County hands Sharpe $2 million for his Tampa Innovation Alliance in the FY2016 budget
We hope the law enforcement investigation includes Sharpe since he was the commissioner who started what turned into such a debacle. Sharpe got rewarded in the 2016 county budget with $2 million for his non-profit Tampa Innovation Alliance that has held some events and recruits members but has no record of successfully doing anything.
The sequence of events associated with Go Hillsborough were not coincidental. They were deliberate and orchestrated. Too much of the entire transportation initiative was orchestrated behind the scenes with no transparency which has resulted in more lack of trust and credibility.
Whatever all the goings on were behind the scenes down at County Center between May and August 2014, it appears they directly resulted in the Go Hillsborough crony mess.
Mike Merrill was smack in the middle of the Go Hillsborough debacle and it all happened on his watch. Regardless of what comes out of the law enforcement investigation, the county commissioners must remove Merrill from the transportation issue.