In what turned out to be a very close vote, St. Pete City Council member Darden Rice was voted 2016 chair of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board Wednesday. Rice squeaked by Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward-Bujalski seven votes to six.
“I’m tremendously honored,” Rice said of the nomination. “Leadership is so important now.”
Bujalski’s defeat in the vote to succeed Clearwater City Council member Bill Jonson to head the board may have stemmed from a controversial motion she made earlier this year to oust CEO Brad Miller.
Instead the board implemented a turnaround plan and will re-evaluate Miller’s performance next year.
“Darden has been an asset to PSTA through her leadership as Legislative Committee Chair, as well as her hard work and dedication to the Planning Committee. I have no doubt that Darden will do a great job of helping to continue to move PSTA forward and in the right direction,” Miller said of Rice’s nomination.
Rice will have her hands full in the coming year as chair.
“PSTA is in such a different spot than we were a year ago,” Rice said.
This time last year PSTA was recovering from fresh wounds surrounding the Greenlight Pinellas defeat that robbed the agency of an additional $100 million in funding each year through a one-penny sales tax hike.
Since then the agency has managed to begin turning wheels on new transit improvement projects despite looming insolvency fears.
As chair, Rice will oversee the Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project that will shuttle riders between downtown St. Pete and the beaches in less than half the time it currently takes to get between the two popular destinations.
She’ll also continue work on another BRT project in its early phases that would run between Tampa International Airport and Clearwater Beach.
“We can’t have emergency vehicles getting stuck on 60,” Rice said of the project’s importance.
She added it also shouldn’t take up to two hours for visitors to get from the airport to Clearwater Beach, which is Pinellas County’s biggest contributor to bed tax dollars.
Rice said she also looks forward to working with the County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization in completing “complete street” projects that would improve not just transportation, but also safety as well by ensuring access for pedestrians and bicycles, among other aspects.
The vote is likely to draw some scrutiny from the usual suspects often critical of PSTA’s inner workings including activist Tom Rask. A conversation in an earlier meeting yielded a potential Sunshine Law violation when a nominating member mentioned speaking with Rice about her interest in being chair.
That conversation was brought back into the Sunshine by disclosing it during a public meeting and any complaints arising are likely to go away as quickly as they surface.
And Rice is intent on being a strong leader for PSTA, especially against tough critics like Rask. In a recent meeting he even went so far as to complain about the font used in a PSTA document. Rice isn’t likely to put up with those sorts of distractions and instead will likely focus her efforts on furthering PSTA dialogue.
The board members who sided with Rice to chair the board next year include Pinellas County Commissioners Pat Gerard and Janet Long, St. Pete City Council member Wengay Newton, St. Pete resident Ben Diamond, Largo City Commissioner Samantha Fenger, Reddington Beach Commissioner Mark Deighton and Rice.
Joining team Bujalski were Pinellas County Commissioners Ken Welch and Dave Eggers, Clearwater City Council member Bill Jonson, Belleair Bluffs vice-mayor Joseph Barkley and Oldsmar Mayor Doug Bevis.