It was a packed third-floor boardroom this morning at HART's Ybor City headquarters as members of the public and concerned business and political leaders gathered to watch board members of the Hillsborough County Transit agency gather to ostensibly vote on a proposal introduced by the Transportation and Economic Development group (TED) — a proposal that would essentially boot themselves off their own board.
But no vote was held, as the board ended up supporting a motion by County Commissioner Sandy Murman to have top HART officials meet with their counterparts with the TED group to come up with "a consensus" on moving forward, though after listening to various board members' opinions about a change in governance today, there doesn't appear much of any consensus about the proposal. If anything, the proposal appears to have created a fissure within the transit agency.
Today's meeting came less than a week after Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill unveiled a detailed plan
by the TED group ( aka the Policy Leadership Group) that would be the basis of a transit tax referendum in 2016 to pay for new transportation options, including Bus Rapid Transit and a light-rail system. But such divisiveness on the governance issue already has some people concerned that it could stall momentum to begin campaigning for that initiative.
According to a document released last week by the TED group, reconfiguring the HART board from its current form (which includes both elected and non-elected officials representing the county, Tampa and Temple Terrace) to one consisting exclusively of elected officials from those localities (along with Plant City) makes sense in that NewHART (as the document refers to such a future agency) would see its budget rise from $86 million to over $6 billion over 30 years (if the referendum passes), and such a large increase in funding "requires direct accountability to voters, both to ensure approval of a sales tax and ongoing financial decision making." They also said that the magnitude of the proposed mobility network, and the "possible necessity to expand the operational and funding charter and authority of HART" works best with all elected officials in charge.
Last week, the board of Hillsborough County Commissioners replaced outgoing community board member Anne Madden with one of their own in adding Commissioner Les Miller to the HART board
, putting four such commissioners on the transit agency. Perhaps not surprisingly, each one of those commissioners has already spoken out in favor of TED supplanting the current board.
But there were very few non-county commissioners on the HART board today who spoke out in favor of such a transition, other than Temple Terrace representative Eddie Vance. HART Vice Chairman Steven Polzin didn't even really weigh in on the subject, saying that there needs to be less concern about governance and more about investing money in public transportation in Hillsborough County. "We're kind of grasping at straws at pretending governance is the problem," he said.
But it was the topic du jour. HART board member Fran Davin kicked off the discussion by saying that such talk about changing the agency's board was a big distraction. "I don't think it's necessary to even entertain this at this time," saying the focus should be on the transit projects the county wants to promote, "not the composition of people around this table." She went on to say that "I would hope that we could set aside the divisiveness on the governance issue."
But that wasn't going to happen.
After County Commissioner/board member Mark Sharpe essentially bypassed the conversation about governance and instead talked about how Tampa trails other major cities in being competitive because of its transportation woes (including mentioning various American cities whose bus fleets dwarf that of Hillsborough County's), Josh Burgin, who took Sharpe on in a contested GOP primary back in 2010 because of Sharpe's advocacy for a transit tax, said he was surprised that the TED group was going to jettison such knowledgable HART board members like Davin and Polzin. "It looks like the County Commission is trying to hijack HART," he said, adding that they were going to relegate the current non-elected officials to something like a citizens' advisory group.
That then led Commissioner/HART board member Kevin Beckner to say that he thought some citizen representatives should be on the board.
Most members of the public who spoke about the proposal today said they were dead set against it.
"I'm appalled by this," said Seminole Heights activist Susan Long. "Many many people in this county are perfectly capable of making educated decisions about our transportation issues."
"Simply indefensible," added Robert P. Edwards. "We're good enough to ride the bus, but not good enough to serve on the board?" he questioned.
Murman's motion for leaders with HART & TED to come together was ultimately billed as both a fact-finding discussion on the governance issue and an opportunity at coming together with a "consensus agreement about what everybody would want to achieve," she said before the issue came for a vote. "I don't want this to just be a fact finding motion. I mean, we've got to start answering questions."
Several HART board members then asked for assurance that their support for the motion did not in any way mean support for the current HART board to be dissolved. HART attorney David Smith gave them that assurance, saying that whatever comes out of the discussions with the two groups, ultimately the HART board must vote on it.
"There are so many issues that need to be worked out," HART Chairman Mike Suarez said. "Because we are a statutory committee board, so we can't just simply 'let's go forth and do this,' there are so many other things that we need to do before anything happens, that this is probably the best preliminary move."
Sitting in the back row observing it all was Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, who said he was fine with the plan for him and his team to get together with HART CEO Katharine Eagan, board chair Mike Suarez and HART attorney David Smith.
"I think it's a reasonable approach," Merrill said. "The thing that's important is that this needs to be discussed. And that's what's happening. So however it turns out is really up to them. So I think this is a healthy thing."