It's no secret that state Senator Jeff Brandes isn't a fan of the Greenlight Pinellas transit measure that Pinellas voters will decide on this November. But the Tampa Bay area Republican has now taken his concerns to a higher level, writing to Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad to review the educational campaign funding for the measure spent by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA).
As originally reported by Phil Ammann on St.Petersblog.com, Brandes writes that as part of the educational campaign, PSTA has been "directly messaging and distributing materials to Pinellas residents," such as pens and necklaces. He then cities two state statutes that prohibit expending such funds or advocating for an initiative that is political in nature.
That's been the complaint of critics of the measure over the past year, who claim that PSTA has been skirting the law by using taxpayer funds to campaign for the measure, which would raise the sales tax of Pinellas County residents by a penny to help fund an increase in bus service and create a light-rail system running from St. Petersburg to Clearwater. Similar complaints were made about Pinellas County Commissioners back in 2007, when they spent $50,000 to educate citizens about that year's Penny For Pinellas measure that would extend that 1-cent sales tax.
"It's about time we find out about where the line is drawn," said Barb Haselden, the head of No Tax for Tracks. That group advocates that Pinellas voters reject the Greenlight proposal.
In his letter, Brandes is calling on the FDOT Inspector General to immediately conduct a review of the Greenlight Pinellas educational campaign, specifically the $800,000 "for the promotions of this campaign to determine if the expenditure constitutes a violation of state law."
There is a separate committee created to advocate for the passage of Greenlight Pinellas. That would be Yes on Greenlight, which has had a rocky start. Their co-chairman, Ronnie Duncan, was forced to step down after pressure from Greenlight critics who claimed that his role on TBARTA created a conflict of interest. Shortly after that came word that the Tampa-based PR firm Tucker/Hall would not be involved in the Yes on Greenlight campaign after it was initially reported that they would. Tucker/Hall created the branding of Greenlight Pinellas, and was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by PSTA to do so.
In a written statement, PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher said, “PSTA has always, and continues to conduct its Greenlight Pinellas Educational outreach with full transparency and in full compliance with the law. We are proud of our efforts and are confident that any inquiries by the Department of Transportation will only confirm these facts.
"Every Greenlight presentation we make highlights the decision Pinellas voters will make this November - whether or not to approve the 1% sales tax for substantially improved public transportation."
"PSTA and its Board of Directors have an important obligation to inform the citizens as to what they will be asked to decide, prior to the November 4, 2014 ballot.”