by Mitch Perry
(UPDATE) Saying that he didn't want to start a "food fight," HART board member Josh Burgin said today the Hillsborough transit agency should create a policy that makes clear that its CEO should not be engaging in any political advocacy when it comes to a transit tax campaign.
His comments came as the HART board was discussing some of the qualities they are looking for in the new CEO, after the agency selected COO Katharine Eagan to succeed current CEO Philip Hale next month. Hale announced in February he would be stepping down soon. Burgin said he had been following media coverage of Pinellas transit issues, specifically the claim made last week by GOP state Senator Jeff Brandes that the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) had crossed the fine line between educating consumers about a transit tax proposal in Pinellas and directly advocating the measure.
The Pinellas transit tax, branded as "Greenlight Pinellas," calls for a swap in funding sources for PSTA, with the additional $100 million collected annually to be used to expand bus service and help construct a 24-mile light-rail line between St. Petersburg and Clearwater Beach. The agency has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past year in educational efforts, but critics contend that through the distribution of small items like pens and necklaces, the agency has gone into straight advocacy.
Burgin has lived and worked in Russia, something he referenced in explaining why he is particularly upset about the claims made by Senator Brandes. "Having lived in countries where policy objectives are pushed entirely by the political class, and the public doesn't get their say, and I've seen administrative resources used consistently in political efforts, I think it's very important for this agency to remember that bright wide margin needs to exist between the agency and its operations and any future political issues," he told his colleagues.
Connect Tampa Bay's Kevin Thurman, a transportation advocacy group that supports the Greenlight Pinellas initiative, said Burgin's analogy was "insane."
Referring to criticism made by Brandes that necklaces and pens that referenced Greenlight Pinellas was a form of advocacy, Thurman says HART itself has distributed rulers and bike lights to promote projects like MetroRapid. "I hope that Josh Burgin isn't attempting to argue that HART shouldn't reach out to as many people in as many ways as possible to include people in their planning process. Because that means the only people who are going to show up are the retired and the rich."
And Thurman also cites Florida Statute 104.31, one of the two cited by Senator Brandes letter to FDOT's Secretary of Transportation last week, as something that anti-Greenlight advocated should note.
After the meeting, Burgin told CL his sole reason for bringing up the issue was that he doesn't ever want to have HART be accused of what Brandes has charged PSTA. "The agency exists to run the public transit infrastructure. The agency's purpose is exclusively to do that. When the agency begins to take steps to align itself with a political activity, I believe that crosses the line."