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Pinellas tries to learn from Hillsborough transit loss

Tribune staff
Published:
CLEARWATER -

Prominent business and civic leaders in Hillsborough County raised more than $1.5 million three years ago hoping to persuade voters there to pay an extra penny in sales tax to build a light-rail system and put more buses on the road.

Their campaign war chest dwarfed the $24,000 raised by opponents NoTaxforTracks.com, yet the backers of the transit plan suffered a crushing defeat at the polls.

For transit advocates in Pinellas County, that 2010 campaign has become an object lesson in how not to run a referendum campaign.

It is 18 months before Pinellas County voters will be asked to approve a 1-penny sales tax hike to pay for a light-rail network and expanded bus service. Transit leaders, though, have already launched a campaign to educate voters about what’s at stake.

The Greenlight Pinellas campaign will be spearheaded by Tampa public relations firm Tucker Hall, which has been involved with 11 Florida referendums in the past nine years, including a successful campaign to get voters to pay for infrastructure projects in Sarasota County.

Its aim is to build awareness about the referendum and the plan for transit before voters are told how they should vote. The firm recently launched GreenlightPinellas.com and also plans to use social media to engage residents. Its website describes the campaign as a community conversation and includes polls and feedback areas.

Leaders of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority are plotting a similar course and have already held 40 public meetings to get feedback from bus riders on what changes they want in bus service.

“The main lesson is to listen to the public and build a consensus before you start a campaign,” said Tucker Hall President Bill Carlson. “In the Hillsborough campaign, there was not a consensus, even when it came to a vote.”

Three committees made up of business, civic and government leaders are being formed to provide input on how transit will grow the economy and change neighborhoods, and approve a final transit plan that will be presented to the public.

Another lesson from Hillsborough will be to seek agreement on transit from elected officials. Hillsborough County commissioners clashed sharply over transit, a spat that Tucker Hall Senior Vice President Tony Collins said helped doom Hillsborough’s campaign.

“Citizens looked at Hillsborough County and decided that it was an unseemly process; there seemed to be an argument that was ongoing,” Collins recently told PSTA leaders.

Achieving a consensus among public officials will not be easy in Pinellas, which has 24 municipalities. Hardest to persuade could be elected officials from the northern end of the county. Voters there would benefit least from a transit system likely concentrated in heavily populated areas from Clearwater south.

Mindful of how Hillsborough County commissioners delayed setting a date for the referendum, Pinellas County commissioners have earmarked November 2014 for the vote.

By law, taxpayer dollars cannot be used to tell citizens which way to vote in a referendum. That means the Greenlight campaign must walk a fine line between educating the public about transit without extolling its benefits.

“We understand where the line is, and we’ve been very careful to stay on the education side of it,” Collins said.

Critics do not agree.

Pinellas activist Thomas Rask in February sued PSTA over its $300,000 contract with Tucker Hall. His lawsuit highlights wording in the request-for-proposal that states the firm winning the bid would be expected to provide strategies that will lead to a “successful” referendum.

The first phase of the Greenlight campaign is scheduled to run until about October, when transit leaders are expected to finish work on a bus and rail plan to present to voters.

Soon after that, business leaders and other supporters likely will launch a pro-transit campaign paid for through campaign donations.

Opponents of the transit plan are expected to mount a grass-roots campaign through social media ahead of next year’s referendum.

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