Anti-light rail tea party advocate has her own conflict, transit tax supporters say

Published Feb. 13, 2014

In the wake of conservative activists' call for the leader of Pinellas' pro-transit campaign to resign, mass transit advocates are accusing the group of applying a double standard.

At the center of the debate is an ethical question: Is it wrong for the board member of a public agency to also work for a political advocacy organization that tries to influence policy on the same topic?

Earlier this week, the group Citizens Organized for Sound Transportation sent a letter to the board of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, criticizing its chairman, Ronnie Duncan. Duncan leads the "Yes for Greenlight" campaign, an advocacy group that's raising money to support an upcoming transit tax referendum that TBARTA has endorsed.

The group has formed a 501c4, a designation that allows it to collect donations while keeping its funders' identities secret, a step that angered COST spokeswoman Sharon Calvert.

On her blog, Calvert wrote: "There is a problem when the chairman of a state agency serves as chairman for a private organization whose anonymous big dollar donors are hiding behind a 501c4, whose true interests are as hidden as the donors."

On Wednesday, referendum supporters shot back, arguing that one of Calvert's allies, Karen Jaroch, is guilty of the same thing.

Like Duncan, Jaroch was appointed to the board of a public agency, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, or HART. She also works for Heritage Action, a 501c4 that functions as the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation that doesn't release its donors' names.

If Calvert's group followed her own reasoning, Jaroch would have to resign from one of the two organizations, said Kevin Thurman, executive director of the pro-transit group Connect Tampa Bay.

"If Sharon Calvert and Karen Jaroch, the co-founders of the Tea Party in Hillsborough County, want anyone who works with advocacy nonprofits to resign from public service, then Karen Jaroch should lead by example," he said in a statement, adding that he believes Jaroch and Duncan have the right to serve in both roles.

Jaroch said the circumstances are different in Duncan's case. Her work with Heritage focuses on federal issues, she said, while Duncan is playing two parts in one local transportation debate.

"I'm not raising money for the opposition, I'm not going out and speaking on their behalf, I don't see any parallel at all," she said.

It's a flimsy distinction, Thurman argued. Heritage Action opposes public spending on light rail, a view that Jaroch championed before joining HART's board and continues to uphold.

"When Karen is on the HART board and advocating against light rail while being paid by an organization that also advocates against that, it is a conflict as far as the standards they set," he said.