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Hillsborough County poised to roll out “listening tour” on transit options

Like Hillary Clinton circa 1999-2000 when she ran for a U.S. Senate seat in New York, organizers leading the series of public town hall meetings beginning next week on plotting the future of Hillsborough County’s transit needs vow it will be listening tour … at least the first phase.

The county begins the first of 36 scheduled meetings taking place over the next couple of months next Tuesday night in West Tampa. According to George Walton from the global consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, the first 12 meetings will “literally be a listening exercise” as county officials take input from the public on what their priorities are to begin to correct the myriad issues with transit across the county.

There will be cards for the public to fill out and questionnaires to engage in at the meeting.

Last week the Policy Leadership Group unveiled GoHillsborough.org, a website  for all things regarding the public discussion on transit set to begin. Walton said Thursday that every few days a whole new set of questions will be posted on the site. The idea is that it will provide opportunities for opinions to be freely expressed. “Where are we going? How are we doing? What are we hearing from the community?” he said.

Members of the public interested in attending any of the meetings are asked to RSVP, but Parsons said nobody will be refused admittance if they don’t indicate their intention to attend.

There also will be ample use of Twitter and Facebook to allow the public to provide opinions, or most of them anyway. Walton said that there will be “rules of engagement” in terms of how people communicate on the site. “You’ve got to be honest.  You’ve got to be fair in terms of what you’re saying and talking about.” He also stressed that respondents shouldn’t write anything angry or rude in tone, which maybe easier said than done.

Not that the public will be able to read such comments.

Walton said officials will be looking for any inappropriate remarks and will quickly delete them, though they’ll be accessible if someone wants to take the time and energy to file a public information request. “So even if though it may have foul language, we might not have to leave that up for obvious reasons, but it will still be available if somebody wants to see it and really dig it up,” he said.

That raised the ire of County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who asked whether there was a “fail safe” method in place to ensure that comments ruled to be out of bounds would still be captured. “How are we going to reassure the public?” he asked.

That led to a prolonged coda to the short briefing, with County Administrator Mike Merrill saying that either Michele Leonard, the county’s internal auditor, or Clerk of the Courts Pat Frank could conduct such an audit if needed.

The ultimate goal is to have the community form a consensus as much as possible on a plan, with the County Commission deciding this fall how it can be financed. That’s when it’ll be learned whether a transit referendum will appear on the November 2016 ballot.

Written By

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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