Go Hillsborough in Desperation Mode: Deception, Media Tag Team, Personal Attacks

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By Jim Bleyer

With only a vague mass transit plan and no demonstrated need for one involving light rail, Hillsborough County politicians and their corporate cronies who stand to benefit from a $3 billion plus sales tax increase have been resorting to lies, distortions, character assassination, and backroom finagling to sell their Go Hillsborough initiative to voters.

The tactics are worthy of a Chicago ward healer…..only they’re not merely ineffective; they’re backfiring.

The Hillsborough County Democratic and Republican  parties have expressed grave reservations about Go Hillsborough. The Sierra Club is skeptical. Two county commissioners have floated alternative plans. Even the business community, whom proponents are urging to fork over at least $2 million for a public relations campaign to pass the sales tax referendum, has been reluctant to embrace a light rail-centered initiative.

A sheriff’s criminal investigation into a $1.35 million no-bid contract to promote the mass transit initiative raised more questions than it answered. The state attorney rubber stamped the findings but there are still state ethics violations pending.

The Hillsborough County Commission has indicated it will vote Apr. 20 on whether or not to place the Go Hillsborough referendum on the November ballot.

Parsons Brinckerhoff, the multinational corporation specializing in transit infrastructure, was handed the contract to develop a comprehensive transportation plan. Seventeen months later there are no concrete specifics as the plan has shifted more often than the sands on Clearwater Beach during spring break. PB has been evasive since the most lucrative aspect of mass transit–light rail–is anathema to an overwhelming majority of the electorate.

In one example of “strategic misrepresentation,” Parsons Brinckerhoff compared a proposal to bring rail transit to Madison, Wisconsin, with improvements to bus service.  To its dismay, the company found that bus improvements alone attracted more riders than bus improvements combined with rail transit.  That’s not the result they wanted since it put a crimp in their projected financial windfall.  Later, PB admitted that it crippled the bus alternative, making it appear that the infinitely more profitable rail was needed to boost transit ridership.  When the government agency that hired PB presented the results to the public, it never mentioned the bus alternative at all, making it appear that rail was the only way to attract people to public transit.

This deception may very well be occurring in Hillsborough. Parsons, who stands to reel in a nine-figure payday with a light rail scenario, conducted public meet and greets, controlled the “message,” and compiled the results of citizen preferences.  Not exactly an impartial process.

Prior to the faux Parsons listening tour, focus groups regarding light rail were conducted at a research firm in Tampa. Floridiocy was privy to the results at one focus group: all but a single participant opposed a light rail system financed by ANY sales tax increase.  We understand PR insider Beth Leytham, paid with public funds, oversaw the research operation.

The “hear no evil, see no evil” Hillsborough County Commission created no checks and balances to verify the consultant’s findings. As in Madison, PB earned–or bought–the unquestioned fealty of the hiring governmental entity. So the much ballyhooed “public outreach” component, the initial phase of the Go Hillsborough effort, was tainted from the outset.

An all-too complicit Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times, marching in lockstep, abet the pro-light rail cabal by relentlessly cheerleading for the fuzzy proposal and the sales tax boost to accomplish it. The coverage by the two local newspapers is characterized by underreporting, misreporting and one-sidedness, in sync with their editorial support for the ill-conceived plan.

The ultimate goal: to brainwash voters to further tax themselves for a 20th century technology. In political parlance, this concerted devious effort is known as a “grease job.”

Both newspapers are wobbly financially thus granting large advertisers enormous leverage over what passes for “news” these days. Readers of media outlets in other cities and states, for example, are educated about the dark side of Publix Supermarkets and Jeff Vinik who spend millions in advertising here. Elevated to iconic status because of their deep pockets, they remain unscathed locally while the dwindling number of Tribune and Times subscribers are clueless.  In the case of Go Hillsborough, this year’s dominant local issue, the explosion of social media has leveled the playing field.

The two stressed-out publications have tweaked an economic axiom: a rising tide lifts all ships, even sinking ones.

Then there is the purposeful mischaracterization of Go Hillsborough opponents and the hurling of playground insults by public officials, most notably Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn. When Hillsborough commissioner Kevin Beckner unveiled an alternative plan to the unpalatable Go Hillsborough one, tough guy and fellow Democrat Buckhorn asserted he would not knuckle under to “three tea party bloggers sitting in their underwear in their basements in Ruskin.”

Buckhorn has let it be known he is considering running for governor in 2018. Mind boggling considering his general disdain for voters and his tin ear when it comes to the will of the people. It is difficult to envision him and his dismissive attitude ever reaching Tallahassee.

County Commissioner Ken Hagan, darling of the development community and another vocal light rail proponent, also perpetuates the myth that opposition to the unending, tortuous Go Hillsborough voyage consists of far right wingers. Nothing could be further from the truth and he knows it. Beckner, when presenting his proposal, stated “I got opposition coming from my own Democratic Party, saying, ‘We don’t like this plan’.”

Personal attacks from the likes of Buckhorn and Hagan bear all the earmarks of desperation. When all else fails as it has, it is the last refuge of sore losers with an empty arsenal. The tactics replicate the attempt to discredit the most vocal opponents of the 2014 Greenlight Pinellas light rail initiative. Voters crushed it by 62-38 percent.

The ethically-challenged Tribune and Times have picked up the smear baton to further their editorial cause. News stories–or rather articles that appear on news pages–liberally toss around the “tea party” designation often with no foundation and even evidence to the contrary.

With Joe Henderson and Mike Salinero the Trib point men, and Sue Carlton, the Times designated puppet, leading the way, both print outlets discarded what little dignity they retained and have for over a year relentlessly attempted to demean and marginalize any opposition to Go Hillsborough. Salinero savaged Ed Turanchik, a liberal Democrat and man of ideas, two weeks ago for opposing the sales tax referendum. As recently as yesterday, Henderson wrote there should be a referendum even though “it will get stomped like a bug at the ballot box.” He doesn’t seem to care about the millions of dollars that will be spent by local government promoting this farce, money that would far better be earmarked for neglected road maintenance. And, of course, true to the Trib code, Henderson utilized the “tea party” dog whistle in his column.

The Times, who dropped the torch of journalistic integrity more than a decade ago, never applied it’s home-brewed Politifact feature to the many claims, machinations, financial projections, rosy ridership forecasts, and other Go Hillsborough selling points. Though I think Politifact is untrustworthy, malleable, and overrated, maybe the Times should give it an honest try anyway. It should also consider reporting on the utter failure of Orlando’s Sunrail as well as the scandals and botched projects involving Parsons-Brinckerhoff. Then maybe it can call itself a real newspaper again.

(The writer does occasionally write a blog sitting in his underwear but does not reside in Ruskin where there are no basements. He is not a registered Republican nor a member of the Tea Party)

Important Links:

More tough times for the Tampa Tribune: http://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/tampa_tribune.php

What will happen to the Tampa Bay Times?:   http://www.cjr.org/analysis/what_will_happen_to_tampa_bay_times.php

WTSP10 reports investigation flaws:   http://www.wtsp.com/mb/news/investigations/3-most-damning-things-in-go-hillsborough-investigation/83730607

Floridiocy reports investigation bias:  http://www.floridiocy.com/426144296?b=84CB52CF393CA5EF46BBFA69B6E42C6645CD4C9

The Problems with rail transit: http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/transportation/urban-transit

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