HART Board chair on proposed governance changes - Uh, not so fast

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This morning the HART board convened for the first time since the Transportation Leadership Group — consisting of the seven Hillsborough County Commissioners and the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace — voted last week to essentially take over control of the transit agency. But according to HART Board chairman Mike Suarez, that proposal must be approved by the current HART board, which has not fully been appraised of it at this time.

HART officials intend to hold a workshop — perhaps as early as next week — and invite Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill to address the group about the plans that he unveiled last week.

"He's [Merrill] come up with a lot of ideas, and staff has come up with a lot of ideas, but there's nothing set in stone. This workshop is all about getting the information," Suarez said, because "the rest of the [HART] board members have not been a part of that."
The Transportation Leadership Group has been meeting over the course of the past year to develop transportation plans for the county — plans that had been moribund since the one-cent transit tax that would have paid for the construction of a light-rail system went down to defeat at the polls in 2010. Pinellas County voters will vote on a similar plan this November.

County Commissioners Kevin Beckner, Mark Sharpe and Sandy Murman voted in support of the reconfigured HART plan last week as part of the Leadership Group, but Suarez told them today that though they are HART board members, they don't actually represent HART — only himself as board chairman and interim CEO Katharine Eagan can claim that title. 

In a conversation after the meeting, Suarez said that he's attended most of the meetings of the Leadership Group, and was aware of the direction it was headed in, but he says many of his HART board colleagues have not been party to those discussions, and therefore they need to be educated about the new plans. 

"Follow the money," counseled HART board member Fran Davin, who represents Tampa on the agency. "It's always been about the money." She said she wasn't surprised that the Leadership Group decided to do what it did last week, but was alarmed that they did so in such a rapid fashion. "Nobody said, 'well, let me take that back to my constituents' ... I thought there would be more deliberation." Having said that, Davin says she's not opposed to the idea, but needs more information.

Suarez agrees, saying that if the Hillsborough County government wants to add more money into the transportation system by expanding HART's duties, that's fine, but asks "where's the money?" He says that HART's focus has never been about building roads, so if that were to be part of its portfolio "we'd have to change our charter, which may mean going before voters."

And he says that "if you're going to create a larger agency we should have more public input, not less," repeating his adage that he feels HART should have officials elected directly to the agency, as is the case with other public transit agencies around the country (Such as BART in the SF Bay Area), and not just having officials elected to a specific position serve on the board. 

The new HART board as proposed by Merrill would eliminate members such as Anne Madden, who was selected by County Commissioners as a representative. A resident of Ruskin, Madden says members like herself add needed diversity to the board in a county where citizens living in unincorporated areas outnumber those in its cities. "We bring our experiences and community needs to the table," she said.

The Transportation Leadership Group says they intend to hold public hearings later this summer on their plans.

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