CLEARWATER — Conservative activists are calling for the resignation of a Tampa Bay area public transportation agency chairman because of his involvement in a privately funded campaign to get a transit referendum passed in Pinellas County.
In a letter copied to Gov. Rick Scott, members of Citizens Organized for Sound Transportation say Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Ronnie Duncan’s leadership of the Yes for Greenlight campaign is a conflict of interest and will damage TBARTA’s standing. The letter also was sent to other members of TBARTA’s governing board.
Duncan was announced at a campaign launch event Friday as one of two members of the steering committee of Yes for Greenlight. The advocacy campaign is expected to raise about $1 million to persuade Pinellas residents to back a 1 cent sales tax hike to pay for development and operation of a mass transit network run by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
“I think it’s really impacting TBARTA’s credibility,” said COST spokeswoman Sharon Calvert, founder of the Tampa chapter of the tea party and a vocal opponent of other Bay area transit referendums. “If Mr. Duncan wants to go be the face of Yes Greenlight, he should not be the chairman of TBARTA.”
Duncan, a former Pinellas County commissioner, was appointed to TBARTA by Gov. Charlie Crist and reappointed for a second term by Scott. He said his involvement in Greenlight is as a private citizen and that TBARTA would not be involved in the advocacy campaign.
“I’m a citizen and taxpayer and I have the same rights as everybody else does to do what they think is right for them and their community,” Duncan said. “People can think what they want but, at the end of the day, there is no legal conflict.”
TBARTA was established by state lawmakers in 2007 to produce a regional transportation plan for the West Central Florida region consisting of Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties. Its governing board unanimously endorsed the Greenlight plan in October.
Duncan’s involvement in Greenlight has been reviewed by TBARTA’s legal counsel Don Conn, a Tampa attorney. He said Duncan can work legally on the campaign as long as he makes it clear he is not representing TBARTA, agency officials said.
PSTA leaders also were advised recently on what is permissible under Florida election law. Tax dollars may not be spent to influence how residents vote, but the law does not prevent elected or appointed officials from publicly advocating for an outcome, PSTA attorney Alan Zimmet recently advised PSTA’s governing board.
Still transit opponents led hope that Duncan’s involvement may attract the attention of Scott.
“It would be a good idea for the governor to look at the situation and see if there has been any inappropriate misuse of Chairman Duncan’s position in influencing the outcome of the referendum in Pinellas in November,” Haselden said.