ST. PETERSBURG — In an embarrassing U-turn, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has returned $354,000 to the Department of Homeland Security amid criticism that it misused a Department of Homeland Security grant to promote the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan.
The first phase of the grant was awarded to PSTA in 2011 to promote awareness of terror threats on public transportation. It used the money to make three TV advertisements that did not mention terrorism or unattended packages and directed viewers to a website for Greenlight Pinellas, the $2.2 billion mass transit plan that will go before voters in a Nov. 4 referendum.
PSTA CEO Brad Miller publicly had dismissed critics who said the ads had nothing to do with public safety and were an attempt to promote the Greenlight plan. But on Friday Miller told PSTA’s governing board he has decided to repay the grant after Homeland Security staff warned they may ask for it to be paid back because the advertisements did not address public safety. The money will come from savings the agency made from overtime reductions, keeping positions open and savings on insurance savings and fuel costs.
Despite his decision, Miller defended the advertisements to his board, saying his staff had spent six months asking Homeland Security for guidance on how to satisfy the grant requirements. No guidance was ever issued and the agency went ahead with the advertisement and asked Homeland Security to review them before they were aired. The department staff refused, Miller said.
“I am sorry this occurred, but know we made the right decision,” Miller wrote in his email.
The three “PSTA cares” advertisements aired on local cable stations beginning in July 2013.
One features “active seniors” Margaret and Victor, and depicts them using the trolley for shopping, dining and trips to the beach. The only mention of security in the ad is that PSTA was “recognized for one of the best security programs in the nation.”
Another about a man who commutes by bus extols the agency’s environmentally-friendly diesel-electric hybrid buses.
All of the ads end with a message to visit the agency’s Greenlight Pinellas website “to learn more.”
The issue first was brought to light by David McKalip, a local neurosurgeon, St. Petersburg City Council candidate and fierce critic of Greenlight Pinellas.
He said the ads amounted to a blatant promotion of the Greenlight plan and called for Miller and PSTA Chairman Ken Welch to resign.
“That behavior means they cannot be trusted and people should vote ‘No’ on Greenlight,” he said. “The people who have abused those tax dollars should step down.”
PSTA’s spending on an educational campaign for Greenlight also came under scrutiny earlier this year after state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, asked the Florida Department of Transportation to look into whether the agency’s campaign broke state law by advocating for transit plan. DOT’s inspector general’s said the agency was acting within the law.
Welch said the attacks on the agency are an attempt to erode support for the transit plan that includes a 65 percent increase in bus service and a 24-mile, light-rail link between Clearwater and St. Petersburg thought the Gateway area.
About 95 percent of the advertisements aired before Pinellas County commissioners voted to put the Greenlight plan on the Nov. 4 ballot, Welch said.
“These groups have a track record of making these claims and they’re not accountable when they’re proven wrong,” he said. “I’m confident people will make a vote based on the facts and they won’t be swayed by this misdirection.”
But he admitted that PSTA could have done a better job making sure it followed the requirements of the Homeland Security grant.
“In retrospect, given the politics surrounding the Greenlight initiative, it would have been better to have better communication with DHS and have them sign off on the advertisements before they ran,” he said.