By George Niemann
Sadly, this story out of South Florida points to what citizens have to deal with on a daily basis. They have to hope that their elected officials don’t “sell” their vote to land developers for campaign contributions and campaign workers. In addition, they have to hope that the media isn’t too soft on public officials when it comes to seeking the truth and/or reporting what could be considered negative news about the way our politicians are conducting business for the people.
Since Pay-to-Play seems to be so prevalent these days, both locally and nationally, I have a suggestion for our commission and for the reporters that cover local government. To dispel the perception among many Hillsborough residents that some of our commissioners follow that Pay-to-Play work plan, our commissioners should take a pledge to return all campaign contributions from people/companies that seek approval for contracts or projects from the county, or serve (or have served) as an appointee on any board or panel that the county creates, or has created.
Also, I would ask the press to diligently look at all of the campaign contributions and provide a report card with regard to who, of the contributors, currently is serving in an appointed position (or has served), as well as, who has appeared before the board seeking approval of a contract or a project. If the press does this research they will find that a high percentage of contributions come from special interests that appear before the board often, seeking approval of something. The press will find the highest percentage of contributions coming from land developers and those related businesses that profit from land development. Myself and others have looked carefully at campaign contributions in previous years. And it seems that this system works well for developers who get approvals more than 90% of the time.
We have found that some commissioners obtain more than half their contributions from individuals and companies that have a financial interest in land development. And it’s even to the point where developer/regular land use applicant John Doe contributes the max allowed by law. Then his wife, Mary Doe contributes the max. Then their son and daughter, Timmy and Tammy Doe, contribute the max, even though they’re still in grammar school. Then all of the corporate officers of John Doe’s land development company contribute, as do some of their family members. It may all be legal, however, it begins give off the faint smell of political corruption. We have also seen that appointees to various boards and panels are often those that have repeatedly campaigned for, and contributed to, commissioner campaigns. Most of the “experts” that the county asks to join economic prosperity and transportation panels are invariably the usual suspects – special interest group leaders that usually have financial ties to development. You don’t find many, if any, advocates or community representatives on those panels. Is it because they don’t have the ability to bring in campaign contributions or people to hand out palm cards come election time? It is all part of a Pay-to-Play political system which does not serve residents well in the long run. It continues unabated because the general public is often unaware that Pay-to-Play is an integral part of the political system in Hillsborough.
So I’m hoping that the press will look closely at campaign contributions and report on the obvious connections between special interests and approvals and appointments. I also hope that our commissioners will pledge not to accept contributions in any form from those that are seeking approval for anything from the county and/or doing business with the county. And, of course, there will be some commissioners that will say they see nothing wrong with it because all of these things are legal. And to them I would say this…not violating the law is not enough to make your actions prudent or what your constituents would prefer, and deserve.
After the commissioners take the pledge and special interest campaign money is returned, the county may then want to adopt and spread a reassuring slogan to the citizens of Hillsborough County, “Pay-To-Play is not our way”.