ST. PETERSBURG — Under-fire Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority leader Brad Miller received a unanimous vote of confidence from his governing board Wednesday, which rejected calls for him and board Chairman Ken Welch to resign over the agency’s misuse of a Department of Homeland Security grant.
PSTA was forced to repay $354,000 to the federal government after it used money intended to raise awareness of security threats on buses for three feel-good advertisements that promoted bus travel and referred viewers to the website for the Greenlight Pinellas mass-transit plan. That led to calls from Greenlight opponents for Miller and Welch to resign.
At a contentious meeting at PSTA’s headquarters, the board approved new oversight measures that include an extra review of any advertising material for the Greenlight Pinellas mass-transit plan. But it also went on the offensive against critics, accusing them of continually making claims of wrongdoing against PSTA to erode support before the referendum Nov. 4.
Welch, in particular, blasted his critics, saying they have a record of making false claims against local government, including lawsuits over term limits for county commissioners and the use of Penny for Pinellas dollars for an affordable housing trust fund.
“Heck no, I will not resign; you don’t have veto authority,” Welch said. “The citizens have elected me to this office. As far as me serving on this board, I serve at the pleasure of this board.”
The “PSTA Cares” advertisement aired in 2013, before Greenlight was approved by county commissioners to go to a referendum and at a time when the agency was trying to build consensus for the plan. According to the terms of the grant, the money should have been spent on a campaign to promote public awareness of security issues related to public transportation.
“Miller has misused federal grants in full knowledge of what the grants were for,” said Gisela Laubitz, a South Pasadena resident who opposes the Greenlight plan.
Further angering Greenlight critics was that Miller, at a meeting June 25, said reports that PSTA misused the grant were wrong. In response to a question at the same meeting, he indicated Homeland Security officials were completely aware of PSTA’s campaign and had no issues with it.
Miller admitted in an email to the PSTA board sent Aug. 1 that his staff had not been able to get Homeland Security officials to review the advertisements before they aired. When they did see the advertisements, officials said they did not comply with the terms of the grant.
“This government agency, PSTA, has lost the trust of the voters because of its continual scandal of how they use taxpayer dollars,” said David McKalip, a frequent critic of the PSTA. “They lied to this board. The question is, is this board going to tolerate the lie?”
This latest clash comes as PSTA enters the crucial run-up to the referendum on the Greenlight plan, which includes a 65 percent expansion of bus service, the introduction of bus rapid-transit corridors and a 24-mile light-rail service.
The $2.2 billion plan would be financed by increasing the county’s 7 percent sales tax rate to 8 percent for 30 years.
Board member Julie Ward Bujalski said there clearly was a mistake made but that Miller had demonstrated strong leadership and commended him for expanding trolley service and the North County Connector, among other changes.
“Our organization made a mistake, and I’m very sorry for that,” she said. “The conversation needs to get back to what does Pinellas want for a transit system.”