Ex-commissioner is forming a think tank
By KATHRYN WEXLER
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- By his own admission, when Ben Wacksman was appointed to the Hillsborough County Commission in 1998, he groped for data and historical perspectives on the issues at hand.
He wanted to deepen his understanding of the public policies he was expected to help fashion. Instead, he found a vacuum of information.
So the ex-commissioner is starting a non-profit think tank to fill the void. The Tampa Bay Regional Institute for Public Policy will tackle weighty studies on such topics as the area's transportation and government ethics, Wacksman said Tuesday.
"At its very best, this institute will be devoted to bringing good government to the Tampa Bay area," Wacksman said.
He envisions round-table discussions with academicians and administrators. He wants the institute to publish authoritative papers. And he wants to draw from across the globe for solutions to local problems.
Calling the institute's political bent "progressive but non-partisan," Wacksman said he wants to keep it free of political agendas.
"My idea is not to be ideological," he said.
But that may take some convincing. Wacksman, a Democrat, is chairman of the board and president of the institute. He owns a real estate company, WP Commercial Inc., and has not ruled out another run for office since his defeat in 2000 by Republican Stacey Easterling.
Whether the public and elected officials believe they can rely on an organization headed by someone with possible political ambitions depends on its even-handedness and the scope of its board members, said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor.
"When politicos are the genesis for think tanks, it also evokes cynicism, and that's what makes it so difficult to get think tanks at the local level started by politicians to work," she said. "The real key to success is having some projects that address critical issues in a fair and balanced manner."
Wacksman said he already has lined up four other board members: Peter D. Klingman, a USF professor; Fred Karl, a former Florida Supreme Court Justice; Rhea Law, a Tampa attorney; and Stuart Rogal, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership for Regional Economic Development.
He said he plans to draw on many others from seven contiguous counties -- Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Hernando, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota.
Pinellas Commissioner Susan Latvala was gung-ho when told Tuesday of Wacksman's plans.
"Awesome," she said. Latvala, who calls herself a moderate Republican, said she hopes an academically oriented think tank could quell some of the political bickering that now envelops certain hot-button topics.
"If a regional group that size can come together" and find solutions, Latvala said, "maybe the elected officials won't be inclined to politicize every decision."
Hillsborough Commission Chairwoman Pat Frank, a Democrat, was skeptical Tuesday. "I don't want to pooh-pooh anything if it's going to be in the general interest of the public, but I would just want to know where the funding's coming from and whose agenda it is."
Wacksman said he'll rely on memberships, grants and contributions.
- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.
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