Some Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority officials still defend the agency's inappropriate expenditure of a federal anti-terrorism grant for television commercials promoting county bus service. While PSTA has returned the grant money to the Department of Homeland Security, the agency's defensiveness and bungled explanations do not inspire public confidence at a time when voters are being asked to approve a sales tax to expand bus service and build light rail. Pinellas taxpayers expect more openness and better management of public money than this disappointing episode reflects.
Some background: PSTA received almost half a million dollars in 2011 through the federal Transit Security Grant Program — grants intended, according to the Department of Homeland Security's website, to "strengthen the nation's critical infrastructure against risks associated with potential terrorist attacks" and to "protect critical surface transportation infrastructure and the traveling public from acts of terrorism."
PSTA used most of the money to produce three television commercials that showed happy people using the buses and that generally promoted PSTA service as convenient and safe. The commercials did nothing to protect the bus system or its riders from terrorist attacks. Neither did the commercials advise bus riders how to report suspicious activity.
The commercials included the logo and website for Greenlight Pinellas, the name of the campaign for a 1-cent transit sales tax to pay for bus system improvements and a 24-mile light rail line. While the commercials did not advocate a yes vote, the presence of the logo and website left the agency vulnerable to claims that it was using federal anti-terrorism money to promote support for Greenlight in the Nov. 4 referendum.
That charge soon was leveled by Greenlight opponent Dr. David McKalip on his blog and reported by WTSP-Ch. 10 television. PSTA CEO Brad Miller initially argued that the stories were wrong and that the commercials were appropriately paid for with a different phase of the grant. But when Homeland Security called PSTA in late July and said the agency might have to return the money because the commercials didn't meet the grant program's criteria, Miller immediately wrote a check for $354,000 from PSTA savings.
That would have been the time for Miller and PSTA board chairman Ken Welch to acknowledge PSTA made a poor decision and would do better in the future. Instead, they defended the ads, and Miller complained that Homeland Security had ignored PSTA's requests for guidance abut how to use the money, though an Internet search would have revealed the grant program's laser focus on terrorism prevention.
On Thursday, Miller told the Times editorial board that in hindsight, it would have been better to create commercials telling bus riders how to report anything they saw that was suspicious. He said he is taking steps now to ensure that the agency follows the criteria for future grants.
PSTA was sloppy in its handling of this federal grant, which would be bad, or intentionally ignored the grant guidelines, which would be inexcusable. Either way, the timing could not be worse as voters soon will be asked to trust the agency to manage millions of new dollars in federal and state grants necessary to carry out the Greenlight plan. Pinellas needs a modern mass transit system. To reach that goal, PSTA has to reassure voters it can be trusted to oversee such an ambitious undertaking.
Read all of the Times' recommendations for the Aug. 26 primary at www.tampabay.com/opinion