Tampa public relations firm Tucker/Hall was paid more than $400,000 by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) in 2013 and 2014 to create a public education campaign for the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum that was soundly defeated at the polls last November.
One of the leading players for Tucker/Hall at the time was Tony Collins, who served as senior vice president for the agency. But after Collins and the firm parted ways early in 2014, coincidentally so did PSTA’s relationship with Tucker/Hall. By law PSTA could not advocate for the initiative, so those efforts were then taken up by a political committee known as Friends of Greenlight.
But PSTA has continued to work with Collins since then. In the wake of his departure from Tucker/Hall, he created the Blake Collins group, a consulting firm where he serves as president and CEO. Records obtained by FloridaPolitics.com show that PSTA has paid the group nearly $8,000 for different tasks since last fall.
There was a check for $2,500 on 11/19/14 for “research and analysis of leadership models and case studies.” Another check for $5,458 was written on 4/22/15 for scheduling and meeting with PSTA board members to assess the “current situation.” And there is currently a pending request for $3,758 for “strategic planning/meeting with key stakeholders/ongoing consultation and alignment review.”
PSTA CEO Brad Miller would not speak to FloridaPolitics.com about the issue. In an email, spokesperson Ashlie Handy wrote that Collins has had two assignments with the Pinellas transit agency. The first was for a February 18th workshop, and the second is an upcoming Board workshop this Friday, where he’ll be presenting information to the board.
As to what was the nature of Collins’ duties, Handy wrote, “At the February workshop, Collins preformed a S.W.O.T analysis on PSTA with the board members. His primary purpose was to interview the board members to find what they believed the strengths and weaknesses were of PSTA. He also created a questionnaire for this purpose.” (S.W.O.T. is an acronym for Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats).
She added that at the workshop scheduled for this Friday Collins will give a presentation on the strategic direction of PSTA. She did not provide any financial details.
“His main role has been to help identify and prepare a strategic direction for PSTA moving forward,” writes Handy.
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long wasn’t aware of the hiring of the Blake Collins group, but said she applauded whoever made the decision to use the firm.
“I think it takes a strong message with educational components that keeps people on message, and your message is so strong and bulletproof that you keep on moving forward, and that’s what Tony has a gift for,” she says.
In retrospect, Long feels that things began going awry for the Greenlight effort after Collins and Tucker/Hall were jettisoned last year. “They (the campaign’s managers after Tucker/Hall was no longer involved) brought in consultants from out of town that weren’t Pinellas County centric who put a whole new emphasis on how the plan was going to get implemented, and I think that’s where we started to go downhill.” Long said that there was a void in the transition period between Tucker Hall and Yes on Greenlight’s work, and says that’s where the main opposition group, No Tax for Tracks, took advantage of that void.
Joe Farrell, the director of public affairs with the Pinellas Realtor Association, was the campaign manager for Yes on Greenlight, the advocacy group that worked on getting Greenlight Pinellas passed. “This is a growing, evolving community issue that the campaign team was proud to be a part of, and will continue to be part of moving forward,” he told FloridaPolitics.com on Wednesday. “I hope stakeholders continue to look at all options.”
Whether the guidance from Blake Collins is what’s required for PSTA to move forward remains to be seen, as different local transit agencies deal with the issue of more service with fewer funds coming in to provide such service.
PSTA’s cross-bay fellow transit agency, HART, also has to contend with many of the same issues. However, they’re not employing any consultants at this time, says spokesperson Sandra Morrison. “We don’t have anything like this,” Morrison told Florida Politics. “In the last three years we haven’t had any consultants meet with the Board.”