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Brad Miller’s poor performance evaluation is a questionable step down from last year

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller received the worst performance evaluation he’s ever gotten since he started heading the transit agency in 2011. His average score based on rankings by his 15-member board this year is just 3.34. That’s down from 4.47 last year.

While the ranking puts Miller in the “average” and “meets expectations” categories – a 2 is considered needs improvement and a 4 exceeds expectations – the number is a shocking detraction from Miller’s previous favorability among board members.

For example, Janet Long, a Pinellas County Commissioner who has been on the board since 2012, gave Miller his lowest ranking this year – just 2.2. Last year she scored Miller 4.75 and the year before that 4.72. A five is perfect.

In fact, Miller received scores less than the average benchmark of 3.0 from eight board members. Other veterans on the board like Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bulalski and Patricia Johnson joined Long in rating Miller below average despite having given him previous favorable reviews. Last year Johnson gave Miller a perfect 5.0. Bujalski gave him a 4.0, which is still considered above average.

So, what happened from one year to the next to knock Miller’s likability down so low?

For starters, included in this evaluation period is the high-profile defeat of Greenlight Pinellas. The initiative would have infused millions more in annual revenue to the transit agency through an additional one-penny sales tax, but it failed miserably at the ballot box.

While overseeing the measure’s passage was not Miller’s job – in fact it would have been illegal for him to actively engage voters in an effort to woo them into a “yes” vote – he was largely the face of the initiative.

And it came with loads of bad press including the biggest dent to Miller’s likability, the Department of Homeland Security scandal in which Miller was accused of mismanaging a grant intended to promote security on buses, but instead showed the Greenlight Pinellas logo in a feel-good TV spot.

The controversy started in early summer last year during a time Miller would have been evaluated for 2014. But, the issue rolled on and only got worse for Miller through October. The agency returned grant funds in August and then another report in mid-October uncovered emails suggesting Miller had lied about his knowledge of the funding’s inappropriate use.

While the Greenlight campaign is invoked in many board members comments, the DHS scandal is rarely referenced. Instead, veteran board members argue Miller doesn’t communicate well with the board.

“For a few months, Brad was doing a good job of meeting with Board members and other pertinent stakeholders to provide updates and reviewing upcoming issues,” board member Janet Long wrote in her performance evaluation. “That effort seems to have taken a back seat with the exception of a few phone calls to alert us to a problem or particular circumstance that needs attention.”

And Bujalski echoed that sentiment saying Miller communicates well on policy issues but only policy issues.

Board members are evaluating Miller for an entire fiscal year. However a recent medical emergency took Miller out of the loop as far as communication is concerned right before they were set to evaluate him.

On July 20, Miller sent an email to the PSTA board informing them he would not be at the upcoming board meeting because he required surgery on a detached retina. According to a PSTA spokesperson, Miller woke up that morning unable to see out of one eye.

Miller had surgery on July 23. On July 31 the retina detached again and Miller required a second surgery conducted on August 5.

During that time Miller was unable to read. His wife had to help him dictate and read emails. Communication was a challenge because of his visual impairment.

But the challenge Miller faced through a temporary visual impairment launched another problem board members referenced in their reviews. Several lamented that Miller has failed to identify a second in command for the agency.

When Miller missed the July board meeting due to his eye surgery he sent James Bradford, PSTA’s Chief Operating Officer, in his stead. But board members were upset there wasn’t a better plan in place to handle board meetings and other PSTA business if he were unavailable.

Board members often noted in their evaluations they heard of various problems within the agency on the news and not from Miller. Even Ken Welch, who rated Miller fairly favorably, mentioned in his comments he didn’t particularly like hearing PSTA issues on the evening news before hearing it from an official source.

And there’s another problem in this year’s performance evaluations. Of the eight negative evaluations, five of them came from new board members.

Curtis Holmes was appointed to the board in December. That means he’s been there less than a year. He rated Miller 2. In his comments explaining the rating Holmes wrote, “PSTA has been slow to develop revenue streams from large employers such as SPC.”

While Holmes could have made that assertion without raising any red flags on his credibility to do so, his example forces his claim into the “with a grain of salt” category. Miller and SPC officially partnered last year to offer free bus rides to any SPC student. The school pays PSTA for that service. A similar arrangement was made with the City of St. Pete.

And then take Dave Eggers’ comment on his 2.65 rating of Miller calling on more leadership on the Path Forward program during Greenlight Pinellas. That statement makes no sense considering Path Forward was a plan created after Greenlight Pinellas failed. It did not exist during Greenlight.

Doug Bevis, also a newly appointed board member, rated Miller a 2.75. Under policy implementation Bevis talks about Miller’s performance over the past 18-months. He’s been on the board less than a year.

There also seems to be some contradictions in the numeric scores assigned to Miller’s performance compared to the comments associated with evaluations.

Julie Ward Bujalski moved, but failed to gain a second to her motion, to fire Miller during a meeting this week based on the performance scores.

Her below average scoring and apparent desire to replace Miller could seem shocking when comparing that to her overall comments on his performance.

“PSTA is certainly a much better organization than it was before he came,” Bujalski wrote.

She also wrote Miller works very hard in guiding the board down a “path of our future.” And when referencing implementation of a committee structure Bujalski commends Miller because “this has worked very well compared to how it was prior to implementation.”

Of course, Bujalski follows that up with a but, writing, “however, I feel this could be improved even more.”

Other board members had similar comments that didn’t seem to match up with scathing numeric evaluations.

Bevis gave Miller a 2.5 on financial resource management but wrote that staff has done a good job of looking inward for savings.

And Ben Diamond scored Miller fairly positive in his written review for the future opportunities and investments category, but only scored him a 3 in that section. He uses words like “good job” and commends Miller for the work he’s done.

Regardless of whether or not Miller’s evaluation was fair, he could be in hot water. The board is set to reevaluate their thoughts on Miller’s future with PSTA in six-months.

In the meantime, Miller says he’s just focused on keeping PSTA a quality transit agency.

I am grateful to the entire Board for spending time with me and working with me to improve my performance and PSTA,” Miller said in a written statement to SaintPetersblog. “Right now, I am just looking forward to continuing this important work.”

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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