Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Smiley Faces Can't Save Go Hillsborough

It's the end of February and we're still waiting for the Go Hillsborough law enforcement investigation that County Administrator Mike Merrill said last year would be completed by Christmas. Somehow now Merrill has told the commissioners they will vote on Go Hillsborough at the April 6 commission meeting.

While we wait our local media spin doctors are in overdrive. They have been saturating their print space trying to put a smiley face on the crony, flawed and totally unnecessary Go Hillsborough proposed huge sales tax hike. The PR blitz is to prop up a Go Hillsborough campaign that is full of bad baggage and has zero momentum.

Three Sunday's in a row (February 7February 14 and February 21) the Tribune published front page articles spinning Go Hillsborough. While the Tribune refuses to speak to those who oppose the sales tax hike, Tribune reporter Salinero conveniently speaks to people who say they support the tax, including college students from other states. Who knows if the college students, who have not begun to reach their peak earning and taxpaying age, can actually vote in Hillsborough or even know much about our transportation issue or county government, but they want higher sales taxes. Salinero calls Go Hillsborough the "what's in it for me" proposal. We agree. It was an opinion driven marketing campaign done for political expediency to sell another huge sales tax hike.

We know "inside baseball" is being played between the County and our local print media on the transportation issue. Beth Leytham, the politically well connected PR person at the center of the law enforcement investigation has a cozy, close relationship with both the Tribune and Times editorial writers. We always suspected their reporters were also playing the inside game with Merrill and the County. This recent article calls Salinero a "definite county insider" and confirms that suspicion.

There was a time when any hint of cronyism, potential corruption or potential ethical issues, the local print media would be curious. They would investigate, ask challenging questions and attempt to get to the truth. They would do their journalistic job to hold those in positions of power, both electeds and bureaucrats accountable.

That is no longer the case in Hillsborough with our transportation issue. The local print media has joined the "end justifies the means" crowd. Just do whatever it takes to get the sales tax hike on the ballot. Then the media can collude with the County insiders and the deep pocketed (we hear $2 million) private advocacy campaign to do whatever it takes to get the sales tax hike passed.

The Salinero "what's in it for me" plan is actually called the Community Transportation Plan, which sounds a bit Socialistic. But it is not really a plan. It is a laundry list of projects grouped by municipality that is alphabetized not prioritized. The alphabetical list of projects are dumped into three spending buckets based on different revenue spending amounts. Go Hillsborough proposes a 30 year sales tax hike for a so-called 10 year plan - that alone should be a big red flag.

Could the Go Hillsborough laundry list basically be the same alphabetized list of road projects the county had identified in their "Comprehensive Mobility Proposal" created prior to spending $1.35 million the Go Hillsborough campaign?

Since the county simply handed Parsons Brinckerhoff a no bid million dollar blank check and did not go through a transparent bid process, did not document requirements, metrics or expectations, it is impossible to determine or measure Go Hillsborough campaign achieved what was expected. We must say we doubt the county expected a law enforcement investigation.

But were there any commitments made by the County/Parsons regarding what we should have expected from public engagement?

At the October 21, 2014 Policy Leadership Group meeting, County Administrator Mike Merrill and Parsons Brinckerhoff presented their approach for doing public engagement. Merrill and Parsons  touted Parsons proprietary software PRISM tool. We were told this tool was required to do the "rigorous technical analysis" to develop a prioritized project list. Below is the page touting the tool from the October 21 meeting.
Parsons Brinckerhoff's PRISM tool presented
 at 10/21/2014 PLG meeting
The tool again was touted by Merrill at the October 7, 2015 BOCC right after he asked the Sheriff to investigate Go Hillsborough. When Commissioner White courageously and rightly so made a motion at that meeting to terminate the Parsons Brinckerhoff contract, Merrill audaciously brought up the Parsons PRISM tool. From the transcript of that meeting that can be found on the county's HTV website, Merrill told the commissioners:
One of the reasons we chose them [Parsons] is they have a proprietary software system called PRISM…So it isn't just a list of projects but a thorough and rigorous analysis trying to fit projects together to make sense of this thing. That was what we were intended to bring back, to be able to show projects, outcomes, benefits to the public. That piece would probably be missing because we don't have that expertise, that proprietary system. Even though the projects probably haven't changed much during this last phase, we can't do that work, that is why we hired them [Parsons].
Where is that rigorous technical analysis we were promised? Where is all the cost-benefit analysis? Where is the data driven analysis? Where are the performance studies? Where is the data that reflects the benefits we will get, such as how much traffic congestion reduced and/or mobility increased, if said projects get done? Where is a real prioritized list of projects that maps to an actual 10 year timeline? What is the ROI? Where is the business model to support Go Hillsborough? We do not find that information anywhere in the Community Transportation Plan.

No one at County Center can provide a copy of the output from PRISM. No one at County Center will even confirm Parsons used the PRISM tool We now understand county staffers were doing the project prioritization work to coincide with Merrill's FY2017 budget planning that is just kicking off.

Tell us again why Parsons was hired? Why did we hand them $1.35 million? The only answer is the county hired an engineering firm but taxpayers got a PR campaign.

Remember the Peanuts character Pigpen? Pigpen had a cloud of dirt and dust that constantly followed him around. The dust cloud swirling around Pigpen never goes away.

Like Pigpen, Go Hillsborough has a dark cloud hanging overhead and swirling around it. That dark cloud is not going away.

No matter how many smiley faces the media, County insiders, cronies or spin doctors try to paste on its face.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Go Hillsborough is trash. Yet Sharon continues to support the disastrous alternative known as TBX.