(Update : Brandes responds below). An imminent report from the Florida Department of Transportation's Inspector General has determined that the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) broke no laws when conducting its voter education and outreach regarding their proposal that will go before Pinellas County voters this November.
“We reviewed expenditures for the Greenlight Pinellas campaign to determine if PSTA violated the advocacy provisions of state law," the report begins. "Our review disclosed no evidence that PSTA Greenlight communications contained text prohibited by law. We also reviewed state funds available to PSTA through department grant agreements to determine if they were used in accordance with laws, rules, regulations and provisions of the grants. We determined PSTA did not use state funds to pay for the Greenlight campaign.”
Highlights of the report were issued to reporters in advance of the IG's report going live on FDOT's website. The investigation was conducted after Pinellas/Hillsborough state Senator Jeff Brandes requested such an audit in early August.
Greenlight Pinellas is the branding name of the plan that goes before Pinellas County voters this fall that will ask them to approve a penny increase to the county's sales tax to help fund an expanded bus system in lieu of property taxes, as well as for construction of what will be a 24-mile light-rail network running from downtown St. Petersburg to Clearwater Beach.
Brandes had charged that PSTA spent $800,000 "directly messaging and distributing materials to Pinellas residents," such as Greenlight Pinellas pens and necklaces. He citied two state statutes that prohibit expending such funds or advocating for an initiative that is political in nature in his letter to FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad requesting an audit.
But the report says no harm, no foul.
“Our review disclosed no evidence PSTA campaign expenditures violated the advocacy provisions of state law," read a section of the report provided to reporters by PSTA. "Communications on PSTA’s ‘Greenlight Pinellas’ website, advertisements and promotional items contained no text prohibited by law nor any ‘magic words’ which would expressly advocate for electors to vote ‘yes’ in the referendum. Orders for promotional items were reviewed and there was no evidence these items contained statutorily prohibited phrases.”
“We are thankful for the very thorough review by the Inspector General, and commend him and his staff for their diligence,” said Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller in a statement . “PSTA always strives to be a responsible steward of taxpayer money, whether keeping nearly 200 buses on time daily or educating Pinellas residents about their transit options." He added that because the agency believes in full transparency, when the final report emerges from the IG PSTA will place it on their website.
"It's no surprise to us that the report cleared the great work of PSTA," said Kevin Thurman with Connect Tampa Bay, a group that strongly supports the Greenlight Pinellas measure. "Greenlight Pinellas Plan was the work of bipartisan elected officials, experts, and hundreds of citizens."
Barb Haselden is with No Tax for Tracks, a group opposed to the Greenlight Pinellas measure. She calls the IG's report "proof that there is the need for tightening up of Florida state law regarding the use of taxpayer money to promote a sales tax increase by a government agency," adding, "I bet we will see changes introduced in the legislature to protect the public further."
(UPDATE): Early this evening Senator Brandes issued a statement saying that " I am shocked that Florida law does not require PSTA to clearly state in their campaign materials that Greenlight Pinellas is a $100 Million dollar per year tax increase." And he went on to say, "While they may be in technical compliance, I believe we need to hold our public entities to a higher standard than Mardigras beads and campaign buttons when they are spending hard earned taxpayer dollars. Next session I intend to file legislation that requires all entities that use taxpayer dollars to educate the public to be more transparent and balanced."