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Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014
Editorials

Editorial: HART’s solvable governance issue

Published:

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority officials rightly want to ensure that residents participate in a major expansion of the county’s transit offerings.

Some members are worried by a Hillsborough County plan to make the 13-member board mostly elected officials.

County and HART officials soon will meet to discuss the governance issue, but it should not distract from the community’s consideration of a comprehensive transportation plan developed by elected officials from the county and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.

The plan envisions spending $6.1 billion over 30 years overhauling the county’s inadequate transportation network. It would greatly expand bus service, build and widen roads, develop rail lines where feasible and add bike paths and pedestrian trails.

Supporters are looking for voters to endorse a 1-cent sales tax in 2016 to fund the plan.

HART, the local transit agency that now operates about 200 buses, would see its responsibilities expand enormously should the plan be pursued.

We agree with Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill that elected officials who are accountable to voters should have the final say.

But residents should have a significant place at the table. Public comment, of course, is part of the process, but that is not the same as having concerned citizens as official participants.

This could be achieved with an advisory board of selected citizens, who would review and comment on proposals.

It is not necessary for the appointees to be voting members of the board, but they would have a platform where they could broaden the debate and influence the outcome.

The 13-member HART board now has seven representatives from the county, three from Tampa and one from Temple Terrace. The governor also appoints two members.

Six members are elected officials, and seven are private citizens, so having elected officials in most of the seats would not be a radical change or set a precedent.

The board of Tampa Bay Water is entirely made up of elected officials from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco, and the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey, and it functions well.

It should not be difficult for the Hillsborough jurisdictions to appoint elected officials as their representatives to a new HART board. Some accommodation would have to be made for Plant City, which currently is not a member. And the governor’s appointees would continue to be lay people.

Couple such an oversight board with a diverse citizens advisory panel, and the community’s different perspectives should be heard loud and clear.

Still, when it comes to the final say on decisions so critical to Hillsborough’s future, the outcome should be decided by elected officials — who, as Merrill says, “have a contract with voters.”

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