The Agency that would run the Greenlight Pinellas Plan (if passed by voters) trusts those with financial conflicts of interest to oversee it. Last week, the PSTA board (Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority) created the “Greenlight Implementation Oversight Committee” (GIOC) to oversee the implementation of the Greenlight plan. The committee (described on page 73 here) would be composed of those “whose professional experience lend expertise related to the implementation of capital projects” and would be advisory to the PSTA Board. At the August 27 PSTA Board meeting the PSTA was challenged to prevent any person with a conflict of interest from serving on the GIOC (see video at time mark 2:08). The PSTA ignored the request to ban those with financial conflicts from the Greenlight Implementation Committee, indicating they would trust Greenlight planners to avoid lining their own pockets. If that is not clear, the PSTA trusts a committee of foxes to guard a land full of henhouses.
Fox Guarding the Henhouse
The GIOC would be composed of seven members with backgrounds as follows: “Engineering (Civil or Environmental), Architecture, Landscape Architecture, or Planning (2-3), Legal (1-2), Banking or Finance (2), Marketing or Public Relations (1-2)”. The committee is expected to determine exact rail sites, architecture, construction, financing and means of marketing the light rail/streetcar connecting St. Petersburg to Clearwater (not Tampa) for the 57 minute one way trip. The committee’s official assignment would be to: “1. Provide expertise related to the implementation of public capital infrastructure projects.2. Establish comprehension and promote credibility for the Greenlight Program. 3. Review progress on project milestones related to the Greenlight Phasing Plan. 4. Review and make recommendations for revisions, if needed, to the assumptions in the Greenlight Financial Plan.” The potential for a major conflict of interest is obvious. For instance, Raymond James Financial has contributed $50,000 to the “Friends of Greenlight” political committee so far. There will be a major bond issued for the train (since 14% sales tax hike STILL won’t raise enough money for the train), resulting in an estimated $148 million in interest payment to the bond holder. If Raymond James has a representative on the GIOC, they will have obvious influence over who will hold those bonds! Joel Giles is the President of Friends of Greenlight and an attorney at Carlton Fields, specializes in “areas of complex real estate and commercial transactions.” His web listing at his law firm continues to indicate that Friends of Pinellas President Joel Giles “represents the developers of large mixed-use, commercial, and residential projects.” There are many rail construction and consulting firms that are major Friends of Greenlight contributors. Many of these players have been part of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce Policy committee as well as its Transportation committee. Editor and founder of the Sunbeam Times, David McKalip (author of this piece) was a member of these committees. Every member of the Transportation committee refused to recuse themselves from a support vote for Greenlight Pinellas if they had a conflict of interest and could potentially make money on Greenlight projects. The chance for major corruption is obvious as these very well connected and powerful individuals could end up sitting on the Greenlight Implementation Oversight Committee that would make critical decisions that would directly benefit them, their companies, their colleagues, family and friends.
“I’ll Scratch Your Back, If You’ll Scratch mine.”
The PSTA board heard these concerns in testimony and refused to ban members with a financial conflict of interest from the GIOC. Instead, they referred to existing rules that indicate when a person has a financial conflict of interest they should recuse themselves from a vote that could personally benefit them. There are three problems with this. First, the members have to be trusted to recuse themselves voluntarily. Given their involvement already, without any compunction whatsoever about taking yes votes in the Chamber of Commerce or openly supporting the Greenlight Political campaign, it is unlikely members will recuse themselves from critical votes. Secondly, it matters not if a single member recuses themselves from a vote, if they are involved in the discussions and guide the decision making in certain directions. When they recuse themselves, all their fellow committee members (each with their own conflicts) will certainly vote in favor of any proposal that would benefit their fellow committee member. These committees are exercises in group-think and rarely have disagreements. When one vote will influence a single member favorably today, that member can be counted on to support another conflicted member later. It is the classic example of “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine”. Thirdly, there will be substantial issues with the Florida Sunshine law. Right now the PSTA board members can’t discuss ANYTHING out of the public light. The GIOC committee members would spend most of their time “off the books” and can make deals at lunch meetings and at corporate board rooms in the run up to the GIOC meetings. PSTA Board member Darden Rice was the Chair of the “Legislative” committee that put this committee plan together. When asked, she stated the topic of conflict of interest never came up. Of course not.
The Greenlight Pinellas plan is created by corporate cronies for corporate cronies. It will create a $2.4 billion train and 16 rail stations with a goal of creating “Transit Oriented Development”. The government will be pushing development at areas within a ½ mile radius of the stations while making development elsewhere more difficult. The PSTA should ensure that not a single member of the committee has a conflict of interest and no familial or business relationship with any person or entity that does. It is not enough to trust the corporate cronies to behave themselves. They must not be part of the Greenlight Plan implementation. If the PSTA cannot, in advance, ban those with a financial conflict of interest from serving on the Greenlight Implementation Oversight Committee, then voters will have another reason to vote “no” on the Greenlight Pinellas plan. As if the highest sales tax in the state (all for Greenlight) were not enough.