Group says leader of transit tax campaign has a conflict of interest

An opposition group claims a conflict of interest, but TBARTA's lawyer disagrees.
Published February 11 2014
Updated February 12 2014

Opponents of Pinellas County's transit tax referendum are calling for the resignation of the man who is leading the campaign to pass the measure, citing what they say is a conflict of interest.

Members of the conservative group Citizens Organized for Sound Transportation sent a letter on Monday to the board of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, criticizing authority chairman Ronnie Duncan for leading the advocacy campaign for the referendum. Called "Yes for Greenlight," the campaign launched last week with the goal of persuading Pinellas voters to support a one-cent sales tax increase to pay for expanded bus service and light rail.

COST spokeswoman Sharon Calvert, who also is the founder of the Tampa Tea Party, said Duncan's dual roles are unethical.

"Your public political advocacy while holding this influential leadership position on the TBARTA board seriously undermines the credibility of TBARTA," she wrote in the letter, which also was sent to Gov. Rick Scott. The governor re-appointed Duncan to the TBARTA board in 2013.

Though TBARTA's role in the referendum process has been limited to endorsing the proposal, Calvert said the situation puts Duncan in the position of serving two masters: transit advocates and the public at large.

Duncan disagreed and, in an interview on Tuesday, said the criticism was politically motivated. He said he will not resign from either TBARTA or the advocacy campaign.

TBARTA spokesman Alex English said the agency's lawyer has examined the issue and as long as Duncan is clear that he's acting as a private citizen, and not the agency's board chair, his involvement in the Yes for Greenlight campaign is legally problem-free.

"There is no conflict of interest in this matter," TBARTA lawyer Don Conn wrote in a message to the agency's board.

He added: "TBARTA is not and cannot be involved in the Greenlight campaign."

The attorney for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has given its board members similar advice, and many of them, including board chair Ken Welch, a Pinellas commissioner, and Darden Rice, a St. Petersburg City Council member, plan to be active in the Yes for Greenlight campaign.