With just two weeks until the election PSTA CEO Brad Miller is in hot water again over use of a federal grant to promote a ballot referendum that would greatly increase funding for the agency he runs.
At issue is use of a $350,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security intended to promote safety and security on PSTA buses and other services. The agency has since returned the money to DHS after criticism that the money was used instead to promote the Greenlight Pinellas plan that would raise sales tax one penny to fund sweeping transit improvements. The agency admitted they had misused the grant.
Now News Channel 10 reporter Mike Deeson has uncovered emails obtained through a public records request to show that Miller intended to “leverage” the funds to promote Greenlight Pinellas.
“We were able to weave in an invitation to visit GreenlightPinellas.com to see our plans for improving public transit in Pinellas. This means we were able to leverage our federal grant dollars and further our Greenlight efforts,” read one email from PSTA marketing director Janet Recca copied to Miller.
What the WTSP report does not include is the sentence written before that.
“While we were very careful to stay true to the spirit of the safety and security message required by the grant…,” Recca’s email began.
What’s most damning to Miller, PSTA and, by default, the Greenlight campaign, is the tone and content of what Miller wrote to those cautious of how the DHS grant was being used.
“The ad agency feels that … we may want to avoid directing people to the Greenlight Faceook page, as it may prompt the media or others to call the Department of Homeland Security and ask their opinion about how this grant is being used,” read a disclaimer printed in several parts of the email chain.
PSTA spent the money on a combination of television advertising, a radio ad and bus wraps for PSTA buses. Agency heads went back and forth over which logos to use with Miller insisting that the Greenlight logo and possibly reference to the campaign’s Facebook page be included on graphics displayed on buses.
“I really think it confuses the message to use a digital ad that is only the PSTA CARES logo that links to the Greenlight wesite. Please do not use those digital ads. If they do link to the Greenlight website then they must have the Greenlight logo on them. I insist on this and won’t approve payment on anything else,” wrote Miller.
He was referring to use of a logo for the originally intended campaign called CARES, or Community Awareness Results in Everyone’s Security, in which PSTA was supposed to promote using DHS grant money.
Miller had insisted that the possible misuse of funds was an oversight and unintentional, but the email chain implies otherwise. In a note to Recca, Miller says he knows she has heartburn over use of the DHS funds.
“We can easily add some stuff about your beloved security,” Miller continues.
Again though, what is not noted in the WTSP reported is what else is said in that note. Miller writes to Recca that DHS knows how the grant is being used. That’s a problem PSTA board chair Ken Welch says has been addressed through mandating better communication between staff and the board.
“We should have made sure we had sign off from DHS and we never had that,” Welch said. “Even Brad was under the impression we had that.”
Welch said he’s received correspondence from the usual anti-Greenlight suspects spearheading the opposition campaign No Tax for Tracks calling for Miller’s resignation. They argue PSTA can’t be trusted to manage its current budget, let alone one that is $100 million larger.
“This abuse of taxpayer trust and their stewardship of tax dollars clearly and convincingly indicates that this agency cannot be trusted with a 300% tax revenue hike provided by the Greenlight Pinellas referendum,” wrote Dr. David McKalip in his blog after initial news of the DHS controversy surfaced. “They cannot be trusted to properly spend the money on promised projects and cannot be trusted to tell the truth about anything.”
“What I would say to voters who hear that is, Brad is accountable to the board who have a track record of implementing projects on time, under budget and by the books,” Welch said in reference to the PSTA board that consists of elected officials from the Pinellas County Commission and other municipal bodies.
Nevertheless, the emails could prove detrimental for PSTA’s push to pass the sales tax referendum. Polls show the issue close and even the smallest hiccup and negative media could swing the pendulum in No Tax for Tracks’ favor.
As for Miller resigning, Welch says based on his most recent performance evaluation, that is not being discussed.
“We’re looking at his complete set of work and he’s done a great job,” Welch said.
Welch does plan to discuss the tone of emails uncovered. He’s concerned with the professionalism, or lack there of, in emails that use words like ‘whatever’ and refer to issues as a staff member’s “beloved security.” But Welch said the DHS grant situation has already been dealt with.
“We’re looking to move forward,” he said.
PSTA board members will meet on Wednesday. The DHS grant issue isn’t on the agenda, but Welch has asked that all board members have access to the uncovered emails and will address any concerns from the public should they arise.
The company handling PR for Greenlight, B2 Communications, is already on top of putting out fires.
“We take any concerns or discussions about how well PSTA handles things seriously from our end,” said Greenlight spokesperson Kyle Parks.
He wants to see a citizen’s oversight committee that would allow members of the public to vet PSTA actions.
“…the way PSTA runs the system, everything we’ve done as far as checking they run an efficient system,” Parks said. “We feel confident that PSTA does run a system well that is a good use of taxpayer dollars.”
Part of the mitigation also includes ramping up get out the vote efforts. Early voting started today. According to the Supervisor of Elections unofficial voter turnout as of 5:00 p.m. 899 voters have cast a ballot at an early voting location. More than 100,000 voters have returned vote-by-mail ballots. Election Day is November 4.