Greenlight Pinellas is a plan for Pinellas County’s transportation needs to be funded by a 1 percent transit surtax up for voter approval Nov. 4.
Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority broke no state laws in its funding of the Greenlight Pinellas marketing plan, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.
FDOT Inspector General Robert E. Clift released a 35-page report June 2 detailing results of an investigation initiated by state Sen. Jeff Brandes.
“The Senator questioned whether PSTA expended public funds to advocate for the referendum included in the Greenlight Pinellas transit development initiative,” Clift said in the report.
According to Florida Statute, “local government entities and their staff are prohibited from expending funds on behalf of, or advocating for, an initiative that is political in nature and pending consideration by referendum of the electorate.”
A referendum on the Greenlight Pinellas plan and 1 percent transit surtax is on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Brandes asked the Inspector General’s Office to review about $800,000 in expenditures by PSTA for a Greenlight Pinellas educational campaign. The review “disclosed no evidence that PSTA Greenlight communications contained text prohibited by law,” Clift said.
State funds available to PSTA through department grants agreements were reviewed to see if they were used according to “laws, rules, regulations and provision of the grants.
“We determined that PSTA did not use state funds to pay for the Greenlight campaign,” Clift said.
Florida Statue also prohibits public agencies from spending public funds on political advertisements – defined as a “paid expression in a communications medium … by means other than the spoken word in direct conversation, which expressly advocates the election or defeat, or the approval or rejection of an issue.”
The report stated that per a Supreme Court ruling, a prohibited political advertisement must contain “magic words,” such as “vote for,” “oppose,” “cast your ballot for” to express advocacy.
The Inspector General found “no evidence PSTA campaign expenditures violated the advocacy provisions of state law,” Clift said. “Communications on PSTA’s Greenlight Pinellas website, advertisements and promotional items contained no text prohibited by law nor any ‘magic words,’ which expressly advocate for electors to vote ‘yes’ in the referendum.”
The review found that FDOT had reimbursed PSTA only for operational assistance and costs of operations, according to terms of grant agreements. FDOT issues cost reimbursement grants.
To get funds, PSTA is required to submit invoices and quarterly progress reports, including route productivity, passenger trip revenue, revenue miles and revenue hours. FDOT’s District 7 monitors PSTA’s services through monthly evaluations. PSTA is required to publish performance metrics annually in a newspaper. The authority must submit an annual audited budget.
“For fiscal year 2013, PSTA went above this requirement by submitting a more extensive Comprehensive Annual Financial Report prepared by an independent auditor for review by the District,” Clift said.
The review revealed that PSTA had actually spent $620,525 on the Greenlight education campaign, comprised of $239,656 in Federal Transit Administration grants and local funds of $290,569.
Yes on Greenlight, a pro-referendum campaign funded through private campaign contributions was included in the review. The Inspector General also looked into comments that Yes on Greenlight’s logo was similar to the logo used by Greenlight Pinellas.
PSTA officials explained that the Greenlight Pinellas logo was not copyrighted and other organizations were using its variations.
“Additionally, they denied any affiliation between Greenlight Pinellas and Friends for Greenlight or the Yes on Greenlight campaign,” the report said.
PSTA CEO Brad Miller welcomed the news.
“We are thankful for the very thorough review by the Inspector General, and commend him and his staff for their diligence,” Miller said. “PSTA strives to be a responsible steward of taxpayer money, whether keeping nearly 200 buses on time daily or educating Pinellas residents about their transit options.”