Local government agency implements plan to “shape what the public thinks”

Hillsborough County Independent Oversight Committee (IOC) staff have developed a media plan that includes “key messages” for committee members and staff to advance to the public. The media plan says that those key messages “shape what you want the public to think and do.”

First reported on by TampaBayBeat.Info yesterday, the effort to use tax dollars to “shape what the public thinks” caused no questions from committee members when the plan was presented at the IOC’s April 27th meeting (video).

Johnny Wong, Principal Planner

Sec 5.1 of the IOC by-laws  state that “The IOC shall have only those powers and duties specifically vested in it by the Governing Law.” We asked Johnny Wong, Principal Planner at Plan Hillsborough as staff support for the IOC: is shaping what the public thinks one of those “powers and duties” given to the IOC?

Wong did not want to comment on the question of legality, instead referring us to IOC attorney Samuel Hamilton. On the legality, we did not receive an answer by our publication deadline.

However, Wong did say that their “description of what the ‘public thinks and does’ was offered as a generic description of ‘key messaging’ in general.”

The IOC is a product of the sales tax hike to fund transit passed by Hillsborough County voters in 2018. The tax is widely expected to be invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court, a topic that is also touched on in the media plan and was discussed at last week’s IOC meeting.

The Guardian was the first news outlet to report on the legal problems with that sales tax hike, four months before the voters voted on it. The “deems appropriate” legal issue raised by our article, together with other legal issues, are now before the Florida Supreme Court. A ruling is expected within a month.

“Hopefully, we get what we deserve,” said Lynn Merenda (audio) about the court case as she presented the media plan to the IOC. Merenda is a Public Relations Strategist at Plan Hillsborough, assigned to assist the IOC, and her comment may say something about the mindset among staff and IOC members. The Supreme Court case was referred to as a “land mine” by IOC members and staff several times during the meeting.

Wong said that the IOC’s “strategy and engagement team” consisting of “3-4 people” put together the media plan.

An agenda item write-up of the media plan, authored by Wong,  said that the IOC in January “directed support staff to collaborate with public information officers and engagement specialists from HART and the four local governments” in drafting a media plan. The write-up went on to say that “together, the agencies produced a media plan which sets forth the general communication goals, strategies and activities for the IOC.”

Despite the involvement of staff from six public agencies, and the IOC members itself, no one voiced any concerns about using tax dollars to shape what government wants the public to think.

“I was shocked after reading their Media Plan,” said Jim Davison, a retired 30-year ER physician and a declared candidate for Hillsborough County Commission district 6. Davison contacted The Guardian with his concerns about the plan.

Dr. Jim Davison

“Let’s be very clear: they are using tax dollars to shape what people think and do,” Davison said. “It is a sad day for everyone when we have people in government who view their job as manipulating the will and actions of the people they are supposed to serve.”

“Developed by the Hillsborough MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) and brought to the IOC, the plan is no more than a propaganda program for the MPO paid for by the taxpayers of Hillsborough county,” Davidson continued.  “The IOC has no authority to make expenditures for such purposes. It brings in to question the IOC’s ability to perform an unbiased audit of the spending. They want to bend the will of the people in Hillsborough county to their ideas of transportation. No debate, no exchange of facts, just their ‘key messaging’ talking points.”

Was this just a case of careless wording? Or has the IOC inappropriately morphed from its stated oversight function to instead serving a propaganda function?

As always….the Guardian reports and our readers decide. Like our Facebook page to find out when we publish articles.

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