Under fire from critics energized by a botched federal grant, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board of directors voiced unanimous support Wednesday for its chairman and CEO.
The board of elected officials and two citizens also approved some safeguards that members hope will ward off more errors in the critical last two months before the Nov. 4 vote on the Greenlight Pinellas referendum.
The vote came after a few of the agency's vocal critics and Greenlight opponents demanded the resignation of CEO Brad Miller and board Chairman Ken Welch, who also serves as a Pinellas County commissioner.
"PSTA has lost the trust of the voters because of its continued scandals related to how they use taxpayer dollars," Dr. David McKalip said. "PSTA and Commissioner Welch and Brad Miller are drunk with power. You do not care about lying to the public. You hold them in contempt."
The critics cited, in part, the need for the agency to return $354,000 in grant money to the Department of Homeland Security that department officials said had been misused. The money was supposed to be used for a public awareness campaign about security on buses, but the commercials mostly touted PSTA as safe and reliable. They also featured the Greenlight Pinellas logo and website.
"Mr. Miller has failed to run PSTA efficiently and has squandered millions of our tax dollars," Gisela Laubitz of St. Petersburg told the board. "He does not deserve to be trusted by taxpayers and he should resign."
At times contrite and defiant, board members acknowledged the grant mistake, then praised Miller and Welch's recommendations. Among the strategies: The executive board will review Greenlight informational materials to ensure they don't cross the line into advocacy.
"It is our responsibility to have strong oversight of the taxpayers' dollars, and I'm sorry that didn't happen in this situation," said board member and Dunedin Commissioner Julie Bujalski. "But we did everything we needed to do to make it right, and we will continue to do everything we need to do."
Welch and Miller acknowledged that the agency had mishandled the grant.
"Any organization makes mistakes, and we have made mistakes, but we are learning from them and developing plans to make sure they don't happen again," Miller said.
As for the calls for his resignation, Welch said: "Not only will I not resign, but heck no, I will not resign."
McKalip and Barbara Haselden, leader of the anti-Greenlight group No Tax for Tracks, told the board that Miller knew or should have known the grant dollars had been misused, and accused Miller of lying to the board about whether the Department of Homeland Security had approved the ads. Miller told the board in June that Homeland Security had not expressed concerns about the ads but said later that efforts to get department officials to review the ads had failed.
Welch acknowledged that the board had been given inaccurate information and said the problem stemmed from a lack of communication with the Department of Homeland Security. None of the board members expressed concerns that Miller had deliberately misled the board.
"Nobody works harder for transportation and the PSTA. Nobody," said board member and St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton. "This gentleman goes above and beyond the call of duty, and that's what's expected, and I think taxpayers ought to be happy that their money is being spent on an individual that does just that."
If approved by voters on Nov. 4, the Greenlight plan will increase the county's sales tax by a penny to expand bus service and build a 24-mile light rail system between Clearwater and St. Petersburg. The board agreed that Miller should provide a weekly email update to the board on the Greenlight effort.
"We don't want to overemphasize a small thing that happened," board member and Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala said before making a motion to support Miller and Welch and their recommendations. "You have put together a very thoughtful plan recommitting us to our mission."
Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.