Hillsborough commissioner sues over who decides how to spend transportation tax

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Hillsborough County commissioner Stacy White filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Hillsborough County and others, in an attempt to put the brakes on a transportation tax passed by voters last month.

In addition to the county, Commissioner White's lawsuit targets the city of Tampa, HART bus line and seven more governing bodies, public agencies, and elected officials.

White is taking issue with the independent oversight committee that must be set up to help determine how, and on what projects, the money brought in by the one-cent sales tax will be used.

"Within this charter amendment, the responsibility that would ordinarily rest with the county commission is delegated to a group that would be unelected and unaccountable to the people," said White, a Republican, adding his second complaint involves the transportation and transit projects that will be chosen. "It unlawfully earmarks these dollars toward specific transportation projects that, by the way, were not properly vetted by the people."

Commissioner Les Miller, a Democrat, is furious.

"I've been sued by a lot of people, but not one of my own colleagues," Miller said, adding he does not believe the amendment takes away the commission's authority. "It is a backdoor approach by a commissioner who was staunchly against any tax increase for transportation to try to stop implementation."

Miller is also frustrated that, because the lawsuit was filed by a commissioner, the county will have to use taxpayer money to hire outside legal counsel as representation.

"I'm hoping that a judge will see the light and say, 'the people have spoken' and throw this out and move on with what we have to do to in making this county a better place to live, work and play," he said.

The group All for Transportation, which wrote the referendum that was passed in November, is confident the measure will pass all legal tests.

Brian Willis, an attorney with the group, said determining how to distribute funding will be a partnership among all entities involved; commissioners will still have a major say.

"The independent oversight committee exists to make sure that what the projects that voters want to see, the improvements that they've demanded, actually happen and actually take place," Willis said. "We're confident it's going to survive scrutiny. Ultimately what we did was amended the county charter. What that means is that it goes into the county charter as a rule that the county has to follow."

The issue is on the agenda for the commission's meeting Wednesday. Representatives from All for Transportation are expected to attend.