ST. PETERSBURG — Embattled Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority leader Brad Miller still seems to have the support of his governing board, but its members say they’re planning to keep tighter reins on the agency that federal officials say misused a Department of Homeland Security grant.
In an email to fellow board members sent Friday, board Chairman Ken Welch said he has told Miller he wants to vet any future advertisements the agency makes promoting the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan. Miller also will be required to give the board, which meets monthly, a weekly update on business.
The extra oversight comes as PSTA enters the crucial run-up to the November referendum on the Greenlight plan for expanded bus service and light rail. Critics of the plan have seized on recent missteps and say they are proof the agency cannot be trusted to handle the $2.2 billion, 30-year project.
PSTA’s board is scheduled to discuss the new oversight procedures and Miller’s handling of the agency at a meeting Wednesday morning.
“There are questions; I think they’ve been addressed,” Welch said. “Like any CEO, it’s all about performance. I’m seeing the kind of adjustment I need to see and the board needs to see.”
But critics of the agency, including members of No Tax for Tracks, the group leading opposition to Greenlight, are expected to attend the meeting and to continue their call for Miller and Welch to resign.
“Commissioner Welch has mismanaged the board and his role as chair, and no amount of scrambling at this point can change that, and he should resign,” said David McKalip, a former St. Petersburg city council candidate and No Tax for Tracks supporter.
The questions about Miller’s leadership came to a head this month after PSTA was forced to pay back about $354,000 to the Department of Homeland Security because the terms of the grant, which was intended to raise awareness of security issues, were violated.
Instead, PSTA used the money for three “feel-good” advertisements that did not mention terrorism or unattended packages, but promoted bus ridership and directed viewers to a website for Greenlight Pinellas.
Welch said PSTA handles roughly $13 million a year in grants with seldom any problems arising. Miller said he will be implementing checks to make sure future grant spending is better scrutinized.
“This one was an outlier; it should have been handled better,” he said. “They didn’t want a scary ad; they wanted something to promote public transportation and to calm fears — it was a clear misread.”
Board member Julie Ward Bujalski said PSTA applied for the grant before Miller joined the agency.
“I think Brad is throwing himself on the sword so to speak on behalf of his employees and it’s an honorable thing for him to do,” she said.
Miller also recently was criticized for putting the name of individuals making public records requests on PSTA’s website. Miller said the move was to increase transparency, but critics said it would deter people from making requests. Miller reversed the decision within a few days.
Welch’s memo states that the referendum has put the agency more in the public spotlight and highlighted poor communication between Miller and the board.
“There is a need to refocus on our core service, and to have better communication between Brad and myself, and between Brad and the board before we take on some of those ancillary issues like the public records website,” he said.
Miller, who makes $170,000 a year, was hired in 2011 with an eye to leading PSTA through a successful referendum and subsequent major expansion of its operations.
Before moving to Pinellas he was general manager of the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority and also served for six years as assistant chief operating officer for the Charlotte (North Carolina) Area Transit System, where he led planning efforts for the Lynx Light Rail line.
Board member Janet Long said she is looking forward to PSTA getting back to focusing on running buses and its Greenlight education campaign.
“It seems to me that this is the No Tax for Tracks people raising red flags on every single thing that PSTA does and making it look like we’re intentionally breaking the law or doing something wrong, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.