False & unlawful endorsement claims by St. Pete Beach mayor arrive in all voters’ mailboxes

In his re-election bid, St. Pete Beach Mayor Alan Johnson appears to have violated Florida campaign law at least twice. First by claiming to have a political endorsement he didn’t have, secondly by also touting multiple endorsements before he had them in writing, as required by Florida law. Florida Statute 106.143(4) requires that candidates have such endorsements in writing from the endorser before going public with it.

Johnson did not respond to repeated requests for comment, or respond to our questions for this article. Quotes of him in this article are taken from answers he provided after last Wednesday’s false endorsement controversy, which we reported on last week. After there were further developments in the story, we even took the rare step of previewing portion of this article with him before publishing it. No response was received.

To my knowledge it only went to the Facebook page,” Johnson wrote. The question Johnson was answering was “how else did you distribute it [a false claim of endorsement]: email, Instagram, other?” The issue at that time was a post on Johnson’s campaign Facebook page last Wednesday falsely claiming an endorsement he didn’t have. Johnson took down that post, and apologized.

That false claim of endorsement has now been repeated in the form of 6,000 inserts into Paradise News that arrived in St. Pete Beach mailboxes on Thursday. Every residential mailbox in St. Pete Beach received the insert with their Paradise News.

Paradise News celebrates 50 years in 2023

The insert was also included in “most rack distributed copies” in St. Pete Beach, according to Peter Roos of Paradise News. “We printed 7,500 of the fliers and had our mailing company insert one in each copy of Paradise NEWS that gets mailed” to homes and also inserted into rack distributed copies.

In light of this, Johnson’s “to my knowledge” answer last week now appears to be less than forthcoming.

In that Paradise News insert, Johnson also claimed ten more endorsements from local area mayors, most of beach towns like St. Pete Beach. Johnson’s actions in doing so creates legal problems for him.

The Guardian reached out to those mayors asking for confirmation that they indeed did endorse Johnson. Four did not respond despite repeated requests, and five responded that they did endorse Johnson, but did not provide a copy of the written endorsement.

Only Mayor Tyler Payne of Treasure Island provided us with the required endorsement form. It was signed a month ago.

The four who did not respond at all are: Dave Gattis of Belleair Beach, David Will of Redington Beach, Dan Saracki of Oldsmar and Joe Ayoub of Safety Harbor.

Johnson’s “to my knowledge” qualifier and hinting that someone else acting on his behalf posted the false claim of Facebook may or may not assuage voters. But Johnson was directly involved in the insert being distributed. Under the statute, the “candidate or person [acting] on behalf of a candidate” is responsible for compliance.

St. Pete Beach Mayor Alan Johnson at Sunrunner “bus unveiling” on July 8, 2020. Johnson in a yellow top on the left.

In communicating with Johnson about this matter, we also asked Johnson about his appearance at the Sunrunner “bus unveiling” on July 8, 2020. It surprised many at the time that Johnson appeared at the event since St. Pete Beach City Commission the year before had unanimously passed resolution 2019-05 opposing the Sunrunner project. Johnson as mayor signed the resolution.

“If you’ll look at the resolution, the City Commission unanimously opposed the project IN IT’S CURRENT FORM (original),” Johnson wrote to the Guardian.

“Subsequent to the resolution PSTA negotiated changes to the busses (smaller), route (only traversed half the island) and number of stops (only two).  On that basis we accepted the design,” Johnson said in his statement.

The number of stops in St. Pete Beach is three, not two as Johnson claimed.

More importantly, the city never formally “accepted the design” as Johnson claimed, nor did it withdraw it’s resolution of opposition. When pressed twice on this point, Johnson did agree that “the City never officially accepted the revised design.”

“We felt it was the best we could do because it was traveling on a state road and they could have implemented the project without our consent,” Johnson said.

Since Gulf Blvd (SR699) and South Pasadena Avenue (SR693) are state roads, and not PSTA roads, PSTA had no legal mean to force the City of St. Pete Beach to accept its design. It is also unlikely that FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) would have imposed a solution on unwilling municipalities without allowing time for the parties to first try to reach a compromise. The City of South Pasadena was also formally opposed to the project.

Karen Jaroch

“The FTA awards project funding only when PSTA can assure them that the project scope and costs are firm and reliable, that all local funding commitments are in place, and that all localities in the corridor are on-board,” Karen Jaroch told the Guardian in 2020 when asked about the Sunrunner BRT. Jaroch is a former HART (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit) board member.

If Johnson incorrectly believed that PSTA had the upper hand in its negotiations with the city, the city may have negotiated less vigorously with PSTA than it otherwise would have.

In other words: it would not have received the best outcome possible for its citizens.

Trump’s approval of funds for the Sunrunner in May 2020 did not mean that the route alignment was set in stone. This is demonstrated by the fact that PSTA is now looking to extend the route to the St. Pete Pier after failing to reach even half of its own recent pre-launch ridership projection.

The Guardian will return to these and other issues in a future article highlighting the contrasting policy positions of Johnson and his opponent, Adrian Petrila, in next month’s mayoral election.

Does Johnson’s response in the matter of his claimed political endorsements show a lack of candor? Should Johnson’s handling of the Sunrunner project give voters pause? As always, it is not for us to decide.

As always….the Guardian reports and our readers decide. Like our Facebook page to find out when we publish articles.