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Wednesday, Mar 20, 2019
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Andrew Bowen: Sierra Club and tea party premature in opposition to Go Hillsborough

Hillsborough County Commission Chair Sandra Murman and County Administrator Mike Merrill are known for their calm, clear-headed and balanced approach to managing controversial issues.

They typically react with composure to uninformed opposition to progressive ideas.

I was not in the room when the two leaders learned of news reports about how the Sierra Club and Hillsborough Tea Party have joined together in their opposition to the Go Hillsborough transportation initiative, but if I had been, chances are I would have witnessed just the opposite reaction by both. And they would have been justified if their feathers were visibly, if privately, ruffled.

The primary reason? Although the Sierra Club and tea party are opposing the Go Hillsborough transportation plan, there is no plan yet for anyone to oppose. (The Sierra Club suggests a gas tax? Oh, my.)

The two groups’ public angst is premature at the least and suspect at the most.

There is only a framework, an outline, a recommended course of action based on the county’s analysis of the initial input from some 15,000 citizens voluntarily participating in 32 public workshops, telephone town forums, Facebook and I-Neighborhood app visits. That’s anecdotal, informal research.

There’s also the empirical data acquired from random polling in a market survey of 600 likely voters.

With nearly 780,000 registered voters in Hillsborough County, the information gathered so far represents the ideas of only 1.9 percent of the electorate, so no one can possibly determine the precise components of the final plan to be presented to the voters Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016 — more than 480 days away.

The main points of agreement identified through citizen input so far are that there is sentiment favoring a one-half-cent increase in the sales tax, and that the county’s three main municipalities and the unincorporated county will receive their traditional share of the sales tax to build out what they believe to be most beneficial for their residents.

Some want rapid bus, some road maintenance and improvements, some bike trails and more sidewalks, and some even wisely envision (dare I say it without being labeled a liberal?) rail service from USF to downtown and later to the airport. Again, no one knows what the final plan will encompass. Most opponents I have talked to, presumably educated people, have not even read the draft of the ideas on the table.

The Go Hillsborough teams intend to gather significantly more statistically quantifiable and meaningful input from likely registered voters before a plan reflecting the wishes of our highly segmented public can be crafted for final voter approval.

There is nothing similar between the two referenda that failed in Pinellas and Polk counties and the initiative planned here in Hillsborough. In fact, the approach used in Hillsborough to gather widespread citizen input to guide the planning process sets the Go Hillsborough initiative apart from the majority of transportation referenda in the U.S. today that I have analyzed.

I speak from experience. In helping to guide the successful adoption of two major — and very controversial — public initiatives in Georgia in a past life as senior vice president with a huge global public relations agency, scientifically based polling of the electorate was what guaranteed our success.

The formula is fairly simple: Find with statistical reliability what the majority of voters want, craft a plan that meets their wishes and negates the opposition, share with them the cost and how we are all going to pay for it, develop motivational messaging that will resonate with them, and deliver that messaging to them in the right way through media they use. Hillsborough County is doing all of this and more (while Pinellas and Polk failed to check even these basic boxes).

Apparently, except for the Sierra Club and the tea party, we all know more needs to be done. Speaking on a panel examining the transportation plan at the Tiger Bay Club, Temple Terrace Mayor Frank Chillura put it like this:

“Mike Merrill and the county are doing a great job, and they have worked hard, but we will need to do even more to reach out. We need to go to the people, big employers, the hospitals, big manufacturers and get input from folks … It’s gotta be the peoples’ plan.”

Andrew Bowen is the founder of Clearview Communications and Public Relations Inc., based in Tampa.

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