Is Greenlight Pinellas trying to screw the pooch?

in Uncategorized by

Most, but not all, of the public polling about Greenlight Pinellas — the plan that would increase the county’s sales tax from 7 to 8 cents on the dollar to pay for expanded bus service and a 24-mile light rail system between St. Petersburg and Clearwater — shows that the initiative will be passed by voters this November. Moreover, an internal poll shows 59 percent of voters say they will be voting yes in favor of the referendum, while 35 percent say they will be voting against it.

In terms of fundraising, Greenlight Pinellas has raised more than $650,000 to-date, giving it the resources to start airing TV ads and sending direct mail.

And while there is a small, vocal minority of community leaders opposed to the Greenlight plan, almost all of the county’s elected officials, community leaders, and politicos are behind Greenlight Pinellas.

So, by any metric, Greenlight Pinellas is winning and there’s not much on the horizon to suggest that is going to change.

But …

Sometimes it seems like the leadership of Greenlight Pinellas is determined to screw the pooch. How else to explain the unforced errors of PSTA executive director Brad Miller and chairman Ken Welch?

First there was PSTA’s outright misuse of a federal anti-terrorism grant for television commercials promoting county bus service. According to an editorial in the Tampa Bay TimesPSTA used most of the money to produce three television commercials that showed happy people using the buses and that generally promoted PSTA service as convenient and safe. The commercials did nothing to protect the bus system or its riders from terrorist attacks. Neither did the commercials advise bus riders how to report suspicious activity.

The commercials included the logo and website for Greenlight Pinellas … While the commercials did not advocate a yes vote, the presence of the logo and website left the agency vulnerable to claims that it was using federal anti-terrorism money to promote support for Greenlight in the Nov. 4 referendum.

Thanks to a blog post from GP critic David McKalip and some reporting from WTSP-10’s Mike Deeson, PSTA returned all of that grant money rather than risk being called to the mat by the Department of Homeland Security.

“PSTA was sloppy in its handling of this federal grant, which would be bad, or intentionally ignored the grant guidelines, which would be inexcusable,” writes the Times ed. board, which has spent a considerable amount of ink this month chastising PSTA. “Either way, the timing could not be worse as voters soon will be asked to trust the agency to manage millions of new dollars in federal and state grants necessary to carry out the Greenlight plan. Pinellas needs a modern mass transit system. To reach that goal, PSTA has to reassure voters it can be trusted to oversee such an ambitious undertaking.”

Welch’s response to the whole affair was particularly disconcerting. He defended the ads, right up until Miller told the Times editorial board that “it would have been better to create commercials telling bus riders how to report anything they saw that was suspicious.”

But those ads were just the start of a very bad month of public relations for PSTA. Next, there was the idea to publish online the names of those making public information requests of the agency. Billed as an attempt to be “transparent,” this was really a cheap shot aimed at PSTA critics McKalip and Tom Rask. PSTA reversed itself after the Times editorial board — to date a staunch ally of the transit agency — shamed it into doing so.

With the vote on Greenlight Pinellas coming in less than eighty days, this is a bad time for the campaign’s leaders to be tripping over themselves. These kind of public relation snafus did not occur as frequently when the effort was being shepherded by public affairs experts Tucker Hall, but the agency has long since cut ties with that firm.

Since Tucker Hall is out of the picture, let me give Miller and Welch some free advice: Just Stop. If you have any more cute ideas, put them in a drawer until after the election. In fact, it may not be a bad idea for you two to go on vacation through November and let the initiative’s momentum carry it to victory.

Perhaps a long train ride?

Material from the Tampa Bay Times was used in this post.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.