The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority August July board meeting turned into a political “Spin Bin” on Wednesday as political spin was applied to a multitude of embarrassing situations.
First, evidence of Florida Ethics Law violations by board member Ben Diamond was presented. Then there was the news that the number of Pinellas County indigents using their county “free healthcare cards” to ride for free rose in one year from 94 per month to potentially 9,500 per month. PSTA only noticed this 10,000% increase two weeks ago.
Board members also held inaudible side conversations during their meeting. Florida law makes it clear that such inaudible conversations can invalidate an entire meeting due to violations of the Open Meetings Law, which is part of the Sunshine Law. When asked by Chairperson Darden Rice to disclose the content of one of those inaudible conversations, County Commissioners Ken Welch described his forced compliance with the Sunshine Law as “irritating”.
Details on these matters below.
Board member Ben Diamond (pictured right) is a citizen appointee appointed by the City of St. Pete. Diamond was not present at the board meeting, presumably because his Democratic primary against Eric Lynn on August 30 in the Florida House District 68 race. In fact, Diamond debated Lynn on the radio the same day that the PSTA board meeting took place.
Had Diamond attended the PSTA meeting, he would have heard allegations from a citizen that voting conflict forms Diamond filed earlier in the year lacked required information, were not distributed as required, and that one form was filed beyond the 15-day limit. The 15-day limit is an absolute limit, imposed by Florida Statutes.
When questioned by Dunedin mayor Julie Bujalski about the form being filed late, board attorney Alam Zimmet reluctantly agreed that the deadline had in fact been exceeded. Diamond’s actions could result in an ethics complaint against him.
Rice preceded Diamond as the St. Pete citizen appointee to the PSTA board, and used the name recognition gained from that position to run and get elected to St. Pete City council. Similarly, Diamond is now using his citizen appointee status to run for the State House, mentioning his PSTA board position on his campaign website.
Rice described Diamond’s two abstentions from voting as an effort to avoid the “appearance of conflict”, as opposed to addressing the actual voting conflicts that the statute (FS 112.3143) requires. Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers disagreed with Rice’s assessment, saying that Diamond “should have voted” on the items he claimed a voting conflict on.
Florida Law (FS 286.012) requires board members to vote unless they “there is, or appears to be, a possible conflict of interest”, as the term “conflict of interest” is defined. According to an attorney the Guardian spoke to, the two aforementioned statutes are known to conflict: one requires an actual conflict, the other allows officials to not vote if there is merely “an appearance” of conflict.
Then there was the contract between PSTA and the Pinellas County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). PSTA CEO Brad Miller (pictured left) had to explain to the board how the number of county indigents riding PSTA had risen from 94 per month in October of 2015 to over 3,500 in less than one year.
Miller added that potentially 6,000 additional indigents could be riding because of a card that look similar to the county’s blue “free healthcare card” for indigents. PSTA told the Guardian that PSTA currently has no way of knowing how many county indigents actually are riding, but that they know for sure that they are (this based on strong indicators).
Miller claims that a fix to the problem is now in place, but the issue of free riders who also get free healthcare is likely to be a hot button issue in the current political climate.
Board members also held inaudible side conversations during the meeting, something which Florida law says could lead to an entire meeting being declared null and void. The reasoning is that Florida Open Meetings law is violated when private conversations occur between board members.
Like all elected officials, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch is required to undergo 4 hours of training per year, training which also covers the Sunshine Law. Therefore, Welch surely knew that when the chair asked that the conversations be disclosed, it wasn’t just for grins. It was to cure potential Sunshine Law violations and to avoid a potential lawsuit challenging the validity of the meeting, and was done on the advice of the board attorney.
Welch must have known why he was being asked to disclose his inaudible conversation, yet he chose to defiantly express that he was “irritated” at having one citizen raising these issues. Less than a year ago, that same citizen sued PSTA over Sunshine Law violations that PSTA initially said had not occurred. In the end, PSTA agreed to redo the election of its current chair (Darden Rice) and pay the legal fees of the complainant.
The training requirement was introduced in 2013 due to repeated disregard for good government laws by Florida elected officials. Florida leads the nation in public corruption on a per capita, according to official FBI statistics.
In the interest of brevity, we stop here, but encourage citizens to watch the video of the July PSTA board meeting , as it contained plenty of sausage-making, spins, grins and fraud on open display.
As always, the Guardian reports and the readers decide.