Campaigns already gearing up for 2014 Pinellas transit vote
Prominent business and civic leaders in Hillsborough County raised more than $1.5 million three years ago hoping to persuade voters there to pay an extra penny in sales tax to build a light-rail system and put more buses on the road.
Their campaign war-chest dwarfed the $24,000 raised by opponents NoTaxforTracks.com, yet the backers of the transit plan suffered a crushing defeat at the polls.
For transit advocates in Pinellas County, that 2010 campaign has become an object lesson in how not to run a referendum campaign.
It is 18 months before Pinellas County voters are asked to approve a 1-penny sales tax hike to pay for a light-rail network and expanded bus service. Transit leaders, though, have already launched a campaign to educate voters about what’s at stake.
Titled Greenlight Pinellas, the campaign will be spearheaded by Tampa public relations firm Tucker Hall, which has been involved with 11 Florida referendums in the last nine years, including a successful campaign to get voters to pay for infrastructure projects in Sarasota County.
Its plan is to build awareness of the referendum and the plan for transit before voters are told which way they should vote. The firm recently launched GreenlightPinellas.com and also plans to use social media to engage residents. Its website describes the campaign as a community conversation and includes polls and feedback areas.
Leaders of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority are plotting a similar course and have already held 40 public meetings to get feedback from bus riders on what changes they want in bus service.
“The main lesson is to listen to the public and build a consensus before you start a campaign,” said Tucker Hall President Bill Carlson. “In the Hillsborough campaign, there was not a consensus even when it came to a vote.”
Three committees comprised of business, civic and government leaders are also being formed to provide input on how transit will grow the economy, change neighborhoods and approve a final transit plan that will be presented to the public.
Another lesson from Hillsborough will be to seek agreement on transit from elected officials. Hillsborough County commissioners clashed sharply over transit, a spat that Tucker Hall Senior Vice President Tony Collins said helped doom Hillsborough’s campaign.
“Citizens looked at Hillsborough County and decided that it was an unseemly process; there seemed to be an argument that was ongoing,” Collins recently told PSTA leaders.
Achieving a consensus among public officials will not be easy in Pinellas, which has 24 municipalities. Hardest to convince could be elected officials from the north end of the county, whose voters would benefit least from a transit system likely concentrated in more heavily populated areas.
Mindful of how Hillsborough County commissioners delayed setting a date for their referendum, Pinellas County commissioners have already earmarked November 2014 for the vote.
By law, taxpayer dollars cannot be used to tell citizens which way to vote in a referendum. That means the Greenlight campaign must walk a fine line between educating the public about transit without extolling its benefits.
“We understand where the line is, and we’ve been very careful to stay on the education side of it,” said Collins.
Critics do not agree.
Pinellas activist Thomas Rask in February sued PSTA over its $300,000 contract with Tucker Hall. His lawsuit highlights wording in the request-for-proposal that states the firm winning the bid would be expected to provide strategies that will lead to a “successful” referendum.
The first phase of the Greenlight campaign is scheduled to run until about October, when transit leaders are expected to finish work on a bus and rail plan to present to voters.
Soon after that, business leaders and other supporters likely will launch a pro-transit campaign paid for through campaign donations.
Pinellas business leaders, including chambers of commerce members from St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Largo, have already begun laying the groundwork for a “vote yes” campaign, said Chris Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
“I would anticipate business folks will identify a lead person who will be for the pro-end of it,” Steinocher said. “Then they will rally a group of business leaders and civic leaders to be part of a pact to raise money to educate and advocate.”
Tucker Hall has not ruled out being involved in the advocacy campaign as well as the educational effort, Carlson said.
Opposition is likely to come from conservatives opposed to raising the sales tax.
That includes Barbara Haselden, leader of the South Pinellas912 tea party group.
Her group has already made “No tax for tracks” signs and runs www.railtaxfacts.com, a website that highlights how few residents use PSTA buses and how much residents pay in taxes to subsidize bus travel.
“I’m not against rail. I’m against the tax it will take to pay for it,” she said. “This is supposed to be an educational campaign. I think Greenlight is pretty biased.”
Opponents of the transit plan are expected to mount a grassroots campaign based around social media ahead of next year’s referendum.