ST. PETERSBURG — A few months ago, a man called the Pinellas County Suncoast Transit Authority and asked a customer service representative how to vote on one of the biggest local issues to land on a Pinellas County ballot in years.
"I was just calling trying to figure out what this Greenlight Pinellas is all about," the man says.
The woman offers a brief, but not always correct, explanation, noting that the Nov. 4 referendum calls for a 1-cent sales tax increase to expand public transportation.
The man ends a two-minute conversation by asking how he should vote.
"I believe it's yes," she says, then laughs. "Yes, it's vote yes. "
This conversation is proof that the PSTA is breaking state law by crossing the boundary between providing information and advocating, according to Tom Rask, one of the county's most vocal opponents of the transit tax.
PSTA general counsel Alan Zimmet disagrees.
"Elected officials and employees are free to express their opinion," Zimmet said. "What PSTA can't do is spend money to spread a message to the public to say yes."
Rask, who is running for County Commission, sent a recording of the call to Florida Department of Transportation's Inspector General Robert Clift this week after Clift concluded that none of the PSTA's promotional materials about Greenlight run afoul of the law.
"This stands in sharp contrast to your report, which states that you found no communications in which PSTA 'expressly advocate for electors to vote "yes" in the referendum,' " Rask wrote in an email to Clift.
The PSTA's use of phrases to describe Greenlight are also illegal, Rask wrote in his email, citing phrases like "transformational bus improvements" and "significantly enhance public transportation in Pinellas County."
In an emailed response, Clift noted that his office reviewed advertising and marketing expenditures at the request of state Sen. Jeff Brandes and found no wrongdoing. He makes no mention of the recorded call.
Zimmet said the agency would be forbidden from using phrases such as "vote for Greenlight" or "support the referendum," but the law allows for subjective comments like the ones Rask pointed out.
It's also not illegal to express an opinion through spoken communication, as the service representative did, Zimmet said.
Jon Kaney, an Ormond Beach lawyer who serves as general counsel for the First Amendment Foundation, agreed.
"If you were able to show something like a concerted, management-directed program to coach the employees to get out there and spread the message of advocacy, then you'd have to ask if there's an expenditure of public funds to put that together," Kaney said. "It would take something like that, beyond just the spontaneous reaction of an employee who's for it and tells you, 'You ought vote for it.' "
Still, the PSTA does not want its employees telling customers how to vote, said Brad Miller, the agency's CEO.
The authority's roughly two dozen customer service representatives were trained on how to provide information about the Greenlight referendum, and they have access to that information when they answer calls, Miller said. The roughly 400 bus drivers also got primers on the plan that would use sales tax revenue to expand bus service and build a 24-mile light rail line from Clearwater and St. Petersburg.
The employees have not been forbidden to offer their opinions, Miller said.
Rask also pointed out that the customer service rep provided incorrect information, referring to "high-speed rail" instead of light rail and noting that the referendum is needed because the authority gets it money from the "home tax" (presumably she means the ad valorem tax), which is going to end soon. Actually, the property tax would be replaced by the sales tax only if the referendum passes.
Miller said employees will get refresher training.
Rask declined to say where he got the recording, saying only that it was obtained by a public records request.
He agreed with a reporter that it sounds like that of Devin Henderson, a 26-year-old Pinellas Park resident, frequent bus rider and outspoken PSTA critic.
Miller said Henderson has made many such calls to the customer service line and has requested recordings of calls.
Henderson, reached Thursday, wouldn't confirm he made that call but said he has called.
"I'm concerned about the misinformation. That's all I can say," he said. "I'm concerned that PSTA would tell somebody to vote yes on an issue they have spent tax money on."