CLEARWATER — For the most part, local politicians are all on-board the push to put a referendum on an expanded bus service and new light rail network in front of voters in November.
The lone dissenting voice against the Greenlight Pinellas plan on both the Pinellas County Commission and the 15-member governing board of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has been Commissioner Norm Roche.
Now, in-coming county commission Chairwoman Karen Seel has removed Roche from the PSTA board and appointed Commissioner John Morroni to take his place, a move that Roche and others say is intended to silence Roche’s criticism of expanding transit.
“It’s a way to build a unanimous unified consent for those supporting the transit plan,” said Roche. “Folks who ask questions and demand accountability are not so welcomed anymore. I’m troubled by this new phenomenon of oppressing any opposing viewpoints.”
Four of the seven county commissioners serve on the PSTA board. Commissioners are appointed by the commission chairman.
Seel said she decided to replace Roche because he had missed several board meetings. PSTA staff said Roche has missed seven monthly board meetings since he was appointed in December 2011. He also missed at least three Finance and Performance Management Committee meetings.
She added that it is normal to rotate commissioners between different boards and that Morroni expressed an interest in serving with PSTA.
“We need to have attendance at meetings when you’re appointed to a board,” Seel said.
Roche disputed the attendance numbers reported by PSTA. He said the meetings he missed were because he was taking care of his brother, who has a form of multiple sclerosis. He later watched videos of those meetings, he said.
“With respect to Karen, that’s baloney,” he said.
Morroni, who appointed Roche to the PSTA board, said board appointments are sometimes decided by seniority, but it’s always decided by the commission chairman.
“They don’t understand the process,” he said. “The chairman can appoint or take you off a board. That’s one of the prerogatives of being the chair.”
Roche was the lone nay vote last week when commissioners voted 6-1 to approve final ballot language for the Nov. 4 referendum.
If passed by voters, the Greenlight Pinellas plan would replace roughly $30 million in property taxes that fund PSTA with $130 million a year from a one-cent sales tax hike, pushing the county tax to 8 percent. The money would go toward a 65-percent expansion of bus services and for the development of light rail and traffic lanes dedicated solely for buses.
Members of No Tax for Tracks, a group that plans to campaign against the tax hike, said Roche’s removal from PSTA’s board was meant to silence dissent.
“He’s bringing up the financial unfeasibility of the project,” said Barbara Haselden, a group organizer. “I think they wanted to eliminate that voice of questioning.”
Seel said there was no hidden agenda in her decision.
“People can speculate however they want; the main thing is attendance,” Seel said. “If people commit to a board, they need to attend the meetings.”