Pinellas commissioner Janet Long criticizes state Sen. Jeff Brandes for transit probe

Published April 25, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long lashed out at state Sen. Jeff Brandes on Wednesday night, accusing the St. Petersburg Republican of trying to stop the momentum of the Greenlight Pinellas transit tax referendum by calling for an investigation into the transit authority's educational campaign.

Long, a Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board member, made the comments during the transit board's first meeting since Brandes called for an investigation into how the authority is spending public money to inform voters about the Nov. 4 referendum. It seeks to raise the sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent to pay for expanded bus service and light rail.

"It seems to be a little bit of a stretch where he's going with this request since there are a majority of elected officials on this board, and I find it somewhat personally offensive that the insinuation is that we're somehow trying to intentionally break the law," said Long, a Democrat. "It is a distraction, and it is very definitely an effort to try to put brakes on our initiative."

"I can't help that he doesn't like transportation options," she continued. "He has a right to his own opinion, but it's a bit of a browbeating effort in my opinion."

Commissioner Ken Welch, who serves as chairman of the PSTA board, agreed. He called the inquiry request a "subjective" move on Brandes' part.

Earlier this month Brandes accused the campaign of crossing the line between informing and advocating and asked the Florida Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General to investigate the use of about $800,000.

Brandes emailed a statement to the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday.

"While it is true that I do not support raising the sales tax in Pinellas to the highest level in the state to pay for 19th century transportation options, this really isn't about my opinion of the Greenlight Pinellas light rail plan," Brandes said. "As an elected official, I never view it as a distraction to ensure that taxpayer funds are being used lawfully. I believe that elected officials should always welcome a full and impartial review of how hard-earned taxpayer dollars are spent.

"As far as transportation options, as the Chairman of Senate Transportation I am on the record in support of bus rapid transit and other dynamic options to enhance our transportation network," Brandes said.

On Wednesday, PSTA's Chief Executive Officer Brad Miller updated the board on the inquiry.

The DOT's Office of Inspector General investigates the use of state dollars, Miller said, noting that the PSTA has not used any state funds, only federal money, for the information campaign. Auditors confirmed that, Miller said, but Brandes wanted a broader investigation of the federal funds.

"It's not necessarily under (the OIG's) official purview but they do try to answer other questions that come up when they're doing audits outside of their normal scope, and we've provided them all the information that they need," Miller said.

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Miller said he expects the OIG report within the next 60 days, and then PSTA will have 20 days to respond.