TAMPA — Residents should actively participate in deciding how transit should expand and operate in Hillsborough County, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority urged on Monday.
A representative from the authority will take that message to the county administrator.
The conversation on what the HART board may look like in the future if voters approve a 1-cent sales tax for expanded transit and road projects dominated the meeting. Transit activists and several board members made it known that they don't favor the county government's plan to transform the board into one made up entirely of elected officials.
But they also agreed they don't want the issue of the board's makeup to derail efforts to pass the tax.
The estimated $6.2 billion in projects the tax would fund over 30 years is designed to break up gridlock on Hillsborough's roads.
Mike Suarez, HART's chairman and a Tampa City Council member, HART interim CEO Katharine Eagan and board attorney David Smith will meet with County Administrator Mike Merrill in an effort to reach consensus on the HART board's future makeup. They will report back to the full board at an unspecified time.
The discussion is part of a larger conversation sparked by the Policy Leadership Group, a committee made up of elected officials from Hillsborough County, Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City that is devising the plan.
The 13-member HART board is made up of seven county representatives, elected officials and citizens among them, plus three representing Tampa, one Temple Terrace and two gubernatorial appointees.
In addition to the governance issue, concerns were raised about whether an authority running the bus system should oversee road projects if its role is expanded.
In an email memo Monday to leadership group members, Merrill said that while HART would collect the new sales tax money, it could allocate money for road projects to the cities and the county. HART and its staff would not be expected to plan, design or complete road projects.
For now, the policy group is aiming to put the 1-cent sales tax on the ballot in March 2016. If approved, the sales tax would generate more than $6 billion over 30 years. That's enough money that elected representatives should be overseeing it, said county Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who sits on the transit council.
Elected officials, Sharpe said, are accountable to taxpayers.
Not everyone agrees.
“Why on earth, when we know what we know about the track record of elected officials in this county, would we feel more secure with a board of elected officials?” citizen activist Ken Roberts asked the HART board.
“Nobody's ever been led out of the HART chambers in handcuffs,” he said, referring to county commissioners sent to federal prison in the 1980s for taking bribes.
HART board member Fran Davin, a Tampa citizen appointee, said getting into a confrontation over governance of the board won't help the transit cause. In Pinellas County, citizens, the Pinellas County Transit Authority and elected officials “are in lockstep” to expand transit, Davin said. “We want to go about it the same way.”
The board and the county need to work the issue out, said county Commissioner Les Miller, appointed to HART last week to replace Ruskin businesswoman Anne Madden, who resigned. Miller's appointment fueled the conversation about the board's makeup because he will become the fourth elected official to fill one of the county's seven slots.
“Rushing to something that changes the way we function without balancing the needs of the community would be done in haste,” HART board member John Melendez III said. There is still much to be done before the HART expansion plan is a done deal, he said.
“There is nothing on paper, set in stone,” said county Commissioner Sandy Murman, also a HART board member. “We have to start showing a great deal of leadership and the message has got to be that we understand the big picture, the traffic problems, the transit problems in this community and we are willing to step back and work on a consensus.”
Murman made the motion to have Suarez and the others meet with Merrill to work it out.
“This is such an opportunity for us,” she said. “The community is going to grow and we have to answer that need.” HART and the county need to show residents “we are going to do it and do it right.”