Facebook entry muddles a stance

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

Published Saturday, May 30, 2009

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita has asked sharp questions in recent weeks about plans to ask voters if they support a light rail system.

Now comes a new Facebook page touting Ferlita's prospective candidacy for Tampa mayor in 2011 and raising more questions.

The creator of the page on the popular social networking site touts Ferlita as "a strong leader who is fiscally responsible." And then he expounds.

"Can we really afford light rail? (no)," writes South Tampa Realtor Bill Dallas, asking, then answering, his own question. "Do we want to pay for it? (no) Let's grow responsibly. Rose has the experience and skills to lead Tampa."

So is Ferlita, who has repeatedly said she supports the transit initiative, having a change of heart about an issue that is sure to be a focal point of the mayoral race?

Absolutely not, she said.

While Ferlita said she gave Dallas permission to create the site, she said she did not approve the wording of his pitch. She said it doesn't express where she stands on rail.

"He doesn't speak for me," Ferlita said of Dallas, a neighbor and customer of the pharmacy where she works.

And Dallas said this week he was voicing his own opinion and was not certain where Ferlita stands on the issue. He said he wasn't meaning to speak for her and plans to support her regardless of where she comes down on rail.

"I think we need to have a strong person in there who is not going to cave to the special interests," Dallas said.

The Facebook page appeared as Ferlita has voiced repeated concerns about how a prospective referendum on the matter is proceeding.

A variety of people and groups, including current Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, have been working for the better part of two years to craft a proposal to take to voters. It would ask them if they are willing to raise taxes to pay for a commuter rail system, expanded bus services and road work.

Ferlita says she doesn't believe the groups are working together or have taken adequate steps to date to find out what the public wants as they shape the plan. The question would be put to voters late next year.

Commissioners ultimately must approve a referendum. And Ferlita says it's time for the groups to finalize a unified plan if they hope to win over voters in a down economy.

"I am most supportive of a multimodal transportation initiative. I support rail," Ferlita said. "All I'm doing is putting fire under the butts of people to make them understand that now is the time before it's too late."

Commissioners who have been working on the initiative say various groups that have a role in transportation are working together. That includes the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART, the county bus agency), the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Florida Department of Transportation, a county transportation task force and the Mayor's Office.

Most of that is being coordinated through the task force, which County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan created to address traffic problems. He said the group hopes to have a unified recommendation by the fall. The first of 13 community meetings to get public input was held this week.

He acknowledged the group perhaps could better communicate with commissioners about its work.

"All of her points are legitimate," Hagan said. "All of the interested organizations and parties are at the table and have been at the table for quite some time now.

Hagan said he is not sure yet if he will support the initiative. It will depend on the final recommendations for the mix of rail and road work and the proposal for how to pay for it, he said.

That said, he agreed that no matter the mix, a detailed proposal shaped by public opinion needs to be finished sooner than later.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who also serves on the task force and has worked closely on the initiative, said the issues are complex. With so many government agencies involved, they take time to work through.

He won support May 20 to arrange a presentation for commissioners. They will discuss how that presentation takes shape when they meet Wednesday.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.


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