Sparks fly at Greenlight Pinellas debate at Tiger Bay Club

The raw feelings between supporters and critics of the Greenlight Pinellas initiative that Pinellas County voters will decide on this November burst out into the open just moments into today's debate on the issue at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club at the St. Pete Yacht Club.

After the opening statements made by County Commissioner and PSTA chair Ken Welch and No Tax for Tracks leader Barb Haselden, Welch was asked if the transit initiative would aid in keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in the county. After saying that wherever the Rays land, mass transit will have to be a part of that solution, he then angered the initiative's critics when he said, "There are lies, darned lies and statistics. And I will add to that statistics from the hands of No Tax for Tracks." 

There was some immediate hissing in the audience.

"That's shameful," cried out a voice a moment later. It was Dr. David McKalip, a fierce opponent of Welch on a number of issues in recent years - and certainly on Greenlight Pinellas.

"You did the same thing in the fluoride issue," Welch fired back. "You disrupted the meetings just like you're doing now. If we're going to have a civil debate, we're not going to allow this to be poisoned..."

One of the points that irked Welch in Haselden's PowerPoint demonstration was her comment that Greenlight is falsely saying their plan for light-rail will ultimately connect St. Petersburg to Tampa. But Welch said that the Florida Department of Transportation has already approved $25 million for that idea. He also challenged Haselden's questioning of PSTA's ridership increasing, saying that the metric used is rides. "PSTA did not make that up," he asserted.

Civility between the two groups was brought up later in the forum, when USFSP Political Science Professor Emeritus Daryl Paulson asked Welch if it wasn't disrespectful of him to tar all opponents of Greenlight Pinellas with the same brush, saying in fact they may have legitimate concerns about the plan, which calls for an increase of the sales tax from seven cents to eight to pay for an expansion in bus service and the construction of a light-rail network from St. Petersburg to Clearwater Beach (the plan would also eliminate taking ad valorem taxes to fund PSTA, as is currently the case for many Pinellas residents).

Welch countered by saying his comments were centered directly at No Tax for Tracks members, saying that some of them had made personal comments about PSTA members, accusing them being corrupt or in one case, he said, of referring to one member's sexual orientation as a basis to oppose the plan.

"If you're going to make those accusations then I have to respond to that," he said, adding that he wasn't about to "lay down and roll over at the misinformation being put out there." He then went on to say that "these are the same folks who have said no to the county on fluoride, no to the county on our affordable housing program, no to the county on even Meals on Wheels... That's why I put that out there. There's a lot of bad information that is being put out there, a lot of personal attacks, things that don't advance the conversation."

Haselden responded, "I just have to reject so much of the hostility that I feel has been directed" toward her organization. She said she had herself put hours into studying the issue and rejected the personal attacks.

When asked for his take after the forum concluded, Dr. McKalip defended his outburst, saying that the entire Greenlight Pinellas campaign was based "on a pack of lies."

"So their only hope is to call people who tell the truth liars, and I'm not going to let them get away with that," he added, saying that he expected such tactics to persist through the duration of the campaign. 

"If you want to win the respect of voters, I don't think that necessarily attacking people who have some concerns about this is probably the most appropriate way to go," added Professor Paulson, who said he thinks the key problem for supporters of the initiative is convincing people from North County to buy into a plan that doesn't really offer them much. "Unless they can convince those people, I think they have a really tough time getting this to pass, just like Tampa did a few years ago."

One audience member who didn't seem impressed by Haselden's responses was Lois Fries, a self-described 74-year-old women who asked the No Tax for Tracks leader what would she propose for somebody like herself who won't be able to drive in a few years, specifically to get to the doctor or grocery store? Haselden responded by talking about the improved technology now available to everyone, such as self-directing Google cars. She also mentioned the demand response transportation service provided for people with disabilities in Pinellas known as DART as a possibility.

Quoting at one point from No Tax's website, Welch said he believes that the organization is against the entire concept of public transportation, and wants to privatize such services. But Haselden shot down that theory, saying she was against runaway spending for public transportation. 

The two also differed on the financial soundness of the Greenlight Pinellas plan. Haselden frequently invoked cost overruns happening at the light-rail project in Charlotte, which was vetted by Ernst & Young, the same accounting firm that Welch said has called the Greenlight plan fiscally responsible.

Welch also disputed Haselden's gloomy forecast regarding public subsidies for transit, saying that U.S 19 and Ulmerton Road are billion-dollar roads that are subsidized."it's about time we got some of those dollars back," he countered, and said that such forecasts were made about high-speed rail in Florida before studies showed it would make money for the state, not lose it. And he said light-rail will relieve congestion on Pinellas roads, not enhance it. 

With more than six months before Pinellas voters go to the polls, it might not be a cliche to say you ain't seen nothin' yet when it come to the intensity of this campaign. Polls differ on its likely success, but a tax increase anyplace in Florida, if not in much of the U.S, is always going to be a tough pitch in 2014, even for the worthiest goals.

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