Sen. Jeff Brandes has asked the Florida Department of Transportation's inspector general to investigate how Pinellas County's mass transit agency is spending public money to inform voters about Greenlight Pinellas.
In a letter sent Tuesday to DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad, Brandes asked the agency to review how the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is spending about $800,000 to educate voters about the Nov. 4 referendum that seeks a one-cent sales tax increase to pay for new bus routes and a 24-mile light rail line between St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Brandes accused the campaign of using taxpayer money for propaganda purposes, a violation of state law that he says should require the money to be returned.
"It's extremely concerning that taxpayer dollars could be spent for what I believe is to advocate for a tax increase," said Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who chairs the Senate's transportation committee. "I think PSTA may have crossed over a line. I want an investigation to see if that is the case or not."
PSTA board chairman and Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch dismissed the allegations, saying he is confident the Greenlight campaign adhered to all legal guidelines and was consistent with past informational campaigns.
PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher released a statement echoing that idea.
"PSTA has always, and continues to conduct its Greenlight Pinellas Educational outreach with full transparency and in full compliance with the law," he wrote. "We are proud of our efforts and are confident that any inquiries by the Department of Transportation will only confirm these facts."
He added that the agency and its board of directors have "an important obligation to inform the citizens as to what they will be asked to decide… ."
Lasher said the $800,000 has been spent on a variety of outreach efforts including websites, graphics and consultants.
Welch also noted that Brandes has been a longtime and outspoken opponent of light rail for the Tampa Bay area. On Tuesday, however, the senator insisted that his issue with the agency's campaign had nothing to do with his personal or policy views. Brandes said he just wants to know whether taxpayer money is being misused.
Barbara Haselden, founder of the group No Tax for Tracks, has raised the same concerns for months.
"I just am very appreciative of Sen. Brandes bringing this action," she said. "I don't think public funds belong on one side of a debate like this."
Earlier this year, her group proposed spending $15,000 to wrap five PSTA buses in ads against the referendum, but agency officials turned them down.
At the time, PSTA chief executive officer Brad Miller said the agency's advertising policy only allows for ads marketing products, services and the agency's own educational information. This last category includes the bright-green ads the agency has wrapped around a handful of its buses promoting the Greenlight website.
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