A movement’s afoot to block Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority plans for change. Two civil complaints were filed in the Sixth Circuit Court - the first on Feb. 20 and the second on Feb. 22.
One attempts to block the Pinellas County Commission from voting Feb. 26 on PSTA’s proposed 2014 tax referendum. Both appeal to the court to stop work on a contract to educate the public on the matter.
Thomas Rask of Seminole filed his complaint Feb. 20, seeking to block a $300,000 contract awarded to Tucker/Hall Inc. by the PSTA board to provide “public transportation educational messaging and branding.”
In his complaint, Rask cites opinions from the Florida Attorney General that it is illegal for entities established by a special act to spend public funds “to advertise in support of or opposition of issues involving interests of the authority.”
PSTA was established by a special act of the Florida Legislature in 1982.
In the complaint, Rask alleges that PSTA’s Request for Proposal for a vendor to provide “educational messaging,” included instructions that “materials will be required to pursue the successful approval of a countywide referendum” and a requirement to “identify specific strategies to lead to successful 2013 referendum.”
Rask contends in his complaint that “to PSTA, ‘success’ clearly means passage (not defeat) of a referendum to increase the sales tax by 1 percent. ‘ Success’ would also result in a net increase in public funds flowing to PSTA and thus be in the interest of PSTA.”
He lists a number of other reasons that the work being done by Tucker/Hall should not continue. He also complains that a contract with law firm Gray-Robinson to advocate PSTA’s legislative agenda in Tallahassee also is illegal because it is paid for with taxpayer money.
He alleges “that PSTA executives and PSTA general counsel have recklessly attempted to defeat and arbitrage away the restrictions placed on it by the special act and AGO’s (attorney general opinions).”
He says if the court doesn’t take action, he will be “irreparably injured because public funds will continue to be illegally expended by PSTA.”
He asks that the court order the immediate cessation of all work by Tucker/Hall in connection with the RFP and that work already done be recalled and not used by PSTA.
He also asks that the court stop all PSTA’s actions related to the referendum, all work under the Tucker/Hall contract and all work under the Gray-Robinson contract until the court determines the legalities.
The second complaint is more complicated.
John Shahan, an attorney with offices in Tarpon Springs, filed the complaint asking the courts to stop four county commissioners from voting on commission matters, including the Feb. 26 agenda item on a resolution of intent to call for a transit referendum.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven Pinellas County residents: Barbara Haselden and James Lampe of St. Petersburg, Rosario Grasso of Pinellas Park, Peter M. Franco of South Pasadena, Judy J. Peterson of Treasure Island and Kathleen Sorenson and Vicky Imes of St. Pete Beach.
The complaint alleges that Commissioners Susan Latvala, John Morroni, Karen Seel and Ken Welch are “illegally holding their office to the detriment of the Pinellas County citizens.”
The basis of the complaint revolves around a May 10, 2012, Florida Supreme Court decision - Telli vs. Broward County - which upheld term limits in the Broward County. This complaint, along with a lawsuit filed in 2012 contends that the decision also applies to Pinellas County.
In 1996, Pinellas County voters passed a referendum approving term limits for the commission and constitutional officers. Those in power at the time asked the courts to declare the measure unconstitutional. The Second District Court ruled in favor of the referendum vote; however, the Supreme Court ruled on appeal that term limits were unconstitutional.
A May 10, 2012 ruling overturned that decision. Due to the Supreme Court ruling in 2002, Pinellas County did not make term limits part of its charter. Some argue that the charter should be amended retroactively to reflect the 1996 vote.
The complaint filed Feb. 22 says the four commissioners “failed to follow the Second District case approving eight year limits by staying on and also disobeyed the Telli case ruling May 10, 2012 from the Supreme Court.
“They have continued to pass resolutions, motions and vote on contracts, ordinances and interlocal agreements, which have questionable legal validity due to their illegal status, if the four defendants here cited are the majority vote.”
The plaintiffs want the court to issue a temporary and immediate injunction denying Latvala, Morroni, Seel and Welch “any right to serve.” They also take task with the remaining three commissioners on the seven-member board for their failure “to disallow their fellow brethren from voting, or through their failure to demand conflict counsel advice as to the issue.”
“No one has exercised their fiduciary duty to protect the public whose vote allows them to serve,” the complaint says.
The plaintiffs specifically ask that an emergency injunction be granted to prevent the four longest-serving commissioners from voting Feb. 26 to schedule a transit tax referendum on Nov. 4, 2014.
The plaintiffs contend that the 1 percent transit sales tax to improve public transportation “dressed in deceptive language as an increase in revenue for buses … is really a vote for light rail, based on the PSTA meetings plaintiffs have attended, that all studies have shown is not feasible for Pinellas County.”
The plaintiffs say, “The citizens will suffer irreparable harm if the court does not intervene, as the citizens themselves cannot enforce two Supreme Court orders and rulings that public officials have snuffed their noses at. An injunction merely requiring the commissioners to comply with the law cannot be a disservice to the public.”
The seven plaintiffs want the court to declare that Latvala, Morroni, Welch and Seel failed to qualify for their last elections and are not eligible to serve. However, Latvala and Morroni were re-elected in 2010, prior to the latest Supreme Court decision upholding term limits in Broward County.
County Attorney Jim Bennett has advised the board that the Telli decision cannot be applied retroactively and does not disqualify current longtime commissioners from serving on the board.
The lawsuit disputing Bennett’s opinion filed last year was dismissed without prejudice Nov. 28, 2012. It was re-filed in January and is scheduled to go to hearing in May.
The complaint filed by Shahan also addresses the use of public funds to pay for PSTA’s contract with Tucker/Hall for education messaging and branding. The plaintiffs say the work is being done “to psychologically convince the public to support a PSTA sales tax.” The reasons the work should be halted mirror those given by Rask.
In an email to commissioners and other concerned parties Friday afternoon, Bennett said the judge for the complaint filed by Shahan is the same as the one assigned to the original lawsuit. At that time, the Bennett’s office had not been contacted by Shahan.
“We will keep you posted as things develop,” Bennett said.