Meeting for the first time since their CEO, Brad Miller, had to humbly return $354,000 to the Department of Homeland Security, the PSTA board heard intense criticism from some members of the public this morning, with some calling on Miller and PSTA chairman Ken Welch to resign, saying that that they have abused their positions.
Two months ago at the transit agency's June meeting, Welch blasted a report by WTSP's Mike Deeson that said that PSTA had misused funding from the Department of Homeland Security to pay for ads promoting Greenlight Pinellas, the transit tax initiative on the ballot this November. But in an about face, Miller earlier this month ended up refunding $354,000 to DHS after the federal agency said that the ads didn't meet the requirements for an "anti-terrorism" campaign. Further criticism reigned down on PSTA after the agency said they would post the names of those who request public information on the agency's website.
"This agency has lost the trust with the voters because of it’s continued scandals," said Dr. David McKalip, who initially wrote on his blog about the DHS funding. "This is not a one time thing, but a pattern of abuse with our tax dollars." He accused Miller and Welch of being "drunk with power."
Several other speakers already associated with the anti-Greenlight group No Tax for Tracks followed suit.
But while Miller remained silent, Welch had plenty to say in response.
He acknowledged that PSTA had made a mistake with the handling of the grant, and said that the agency would learn from the episode. But he said that the problem was due mostly to a lack of communications with DHS, which prompted some serious head-shaking in the crowd from Greenlight critics. But he didn't stop there, acknowledging that some of the conservative critics who have seized on the agency's mistakes have been the same foes of the Pinellas County Commission on a variety of issues over the years, usually regarding the size of government in the county in their opposition to the Penny for Pinellas tax, as well as county funding for affordable housing programs. He later went on to say that the results of last night's election ((in which Greenlight critics like Norm Roche and Tom Rask went down to defeat) was an indication that the voters in the county have consistently rejected the small government crowd's philosophy.
He then looked over at McKalip, saying, "To make personal attacks and to ask for our CEO to resign is ironic," because "you've made some mistakes yourself," alluding undoubtedly to McKalip's infamously sending a racist email regarding President Obama, for which McKalip subsequently apologized.
Upon hearing that, No Tax For Trax leader Barb Haselden was overheard saying, "Unbelievable," while McKalip yelled that Welch's comment was a "scurrilous attack."
Julie Bujalski, Dunedin City Commissioner and Chair of PSTA's Planning Committee, took a different tack, saying, "Our organization made a mistake and I'm very sorry for that." But she then switched gears and spoke enthusiastically about Miller, saying that he had fallen on his figurative sword as a leader because he wasn't the only one involved in the DHS ad.
Later, Welch went over a memo he recently composed that he said the agency needs to use a template in the next 69 days before the one-cent transit tax goes to the polls on November 4. His memo calls for service delivery being a top priority, as well as better communications between Miller and the board, and preparing board members for the inevitability that the agency is only going to continue to be under closer scrutiny as the vote approaches, and that they should act accordingly.
And the memo also calls for placing extra scrutiny on PSTA ad materials to ensure that they stress education, and not advocacy regarding Greenlight, something that critics like state Senator Jeff Brandes say has already happened (The Department of Transportation's inspector general ruled earlier this year that PSTA had not violated the law in that respect).
PSTA's Miller spoke later in the meeting, where he said that as CEO he was taking responsibility for mistakes that have occurred under his watch, and plans are being developed so that such problems don't occur in the future.
Pinellas Commissioner Susan Latvala called for a vote of support for Miller and Welch that was mired in a bureaucratic dance for a chunk of time, leading her to initially pull the vote after complaints from the audience that it hadn't been publicly advertised. That led McKalip to attack the board one more time.
"Your modus operandi is ignore, attack and obfuscate," he railed. "How can the voters trust people who put politics over their duty to the public? If you support them in this position, each of you are just as guilty as they are."
After being given permission then to vote on a public show of support, the entire PSTA board did just that, despite McKalip's claims.