Earlier this spring Dr. David McKalip, one of the leading critics of the Greenlight Pinellas transit tax that county voters will decide on this fall, said that he felt something was amiss after watching an ad that PSTA, the Pinellas transit agency, ran with a disclaimer at its conclusion mentioning Department of Homeland Security grant money. He instigated a public records request to learn who made the commercials, then followed up by researching online documents and reviewing PSTA minutes of earlier board meetings. That convinced him that the agency had misspent DHS funds as a back-door way to promote the transit plan.
So he confronted PSTA Executive Director Brad Miller, who denied his charges. Shortly thereafter, ace WTSP investigative television reporter Mike Deeson picked up on McKalip’s work and did his own report. He confronted Miller on camera to answer the charge that it appeared the agency had misused funds to promote the transit agency, which PSTA is explicitly not allowed to do. Again, Miller rejected the allegation.
A couple of days later, the PSTA board met for its monthly June meeting. There, Miller and Welch addressed the issue, with Welch mocking its accuracy. As some Board members talked about demanding a retraction from the local CBS affiliate, Welch simply conceded that critics were going to use such “misinformation” all the way up to the election.
Except it wasn’t misinformation, something that Miller and Welch had to cop to after Homeland Security called on PSTA to return the $354,000 in federal funds after it concluded its own investigation (prompted by an inquiry from Congressman David Jolly).
A minor aberration on the way to Pinellas successfully voting on what its advocates call one of the biggest things to happen to the county, ever? Perhaps. But with trust in government at all-time low levels, the error by an agency asking to raise residents’ taxes played straight into the Tea Party mantra about Big Government run amok.
“It’s unfortunate that political ideology will play a significant role,” says Eckerd College political science professor Tony Brunello, who supports the measure. “So that this sort of skepticism about government could very well blunt the momentum towards getting this done.”