Homeland Security grant used to produce “feel good” Greenlight Pinellas ads

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Thousands in federal Homeland Security dollars — money intended to promote awareness of suspicious activity on buses — is in reality going to promote the Greenlight Pinellas transit plan, according to WTSP/10 News Investigates.

A half million dollar grant to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority from the Department of Homeland Security was used to produce a series of “feel good” video ads calling bus riders to learn more about public transportation in Pinellas County.

“It’s about this general idea of making the transportation system feel more safe and secure,” PSTA Executive Director Brad Miller told reporter Mike Deeson.

Although Miller insists that is intended purpose of the ads, Deeson found both PSTA’s internal documents and the Homeland Security website saying the grant is for encouraging “transit patrons to alert authorities if they see anything suspicious” as well as “further promote public awareness of security issues related to public transportation.”

“The DHS program, the public outreach component is more than just about bombs and terrorism and police force,” Miller responded.

“In my opinion, they have crossed the line and they’ve abused taxpayer dollars,” said David McKalip, who is a vocal opponent of the Greenlight Pinellas, which asks voters in November to approve a one-percent increase in the county sales tax for additional bus service countywide.

McKalip says that PSTA ads actually help the tax, which would increase Pinellas County sales tax from seven to eight percent. He also claims the ads violate a law prohibiting a government agency from advocating a vote on a particular issue.

Former state Sen. Charlie Justice, sponsor of the bill, says that the law is clear.

“No government entity should advocate or tell voters how to vote on an issue, period,” he said.

When asked if it covered either federal or state funds, Justice told Deeson, “Any money.”

“The people around here know this money was supposed to be used to educate the public to stop bus bombings,” McKalip said, “Instead, PSTA abused it so they could promote their Greenlight Pinellas boondoggle.”

The three ads financed by Homeland Security money mentions security concerns, but only in passing, Deeson says in the news spot, which ran on Monday.  The ad states that PSTA cares about security, provides safe and reliable bus service to “get people to their destination safely.”

Nothing is said about suspicious packages, terrorists or bombs.

“I feel very comfortable how the money was used and would welcome any kind of review of that,” Miller said.

In a statement responding to the WTSP piece, Miller clarified how the Department of Homeland Security prefers advertising that doesn’t promote fear. The PSTA “feel good” ads fall in line with DHS requirements.

“DHS specifically favors outreach that doesn’t scare people with images of bombs or terrorism,” Miller said, “but instead prioritizes advertising like we’ve made, that show how riding public transit is safe and secure.”

By adding additional late night, weekend and more frequent transit services — the foundation of the Greenlight Pinellas Plan — riders will feel safe and secure using public transit, which Miller feels is the goal of both the DHS and Greenlight Pinellas.

“To date, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been very pleased with PSTA’s advertisements,” he said. “The ads fully comply with the grant’s Phase II through which they were funded, the purpose of which was to ‘implement a mass media campaign to further promote public awareness of security issues related to public transportation.'”

“In fact,” he added, “DHS agreed to add their logo to the TV commercials, and suggested to PSTA to apply for additional grant funds. PSTA also met the obligations of Phase I of the grant that a local TV news outlet and your article referenced with separate print brochures and materials, though this phase did not fund the TV advertisements.”

“PSTA always strives to be a responsible steward of taxpayer money and follow the laws that govern our funding and our agency to the letter,” Miller continued. “Time and time again, through multiple inquiries, we have proven this to be true. And as a taxpayer-funded enterprise, we welcome any and all scrutiny into our efforts to educate the public.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.