CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers, who for the past year has served as the secretary-treasurer of the county’s transit agency, will not return to that post in 2024.
Instead, all four of the County Commission’s Republican members will serve on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s 15-member board of directors next year. The move helps to concentrate the party’s power on the board at a time when the agency faces criticism from the right, as well as potential legislative changes that would increase the party’s influence.
The decision to assign Flowers to seven other boards and committees that feature County Commission seats, but not to the Transit Authority, came from Kathleen Peters, the commission’s chairperson for 2024. Flowers broke the news at a Transit Authority board meeting on Dec. 6, and on Tuesday, the County Commission approved Peters’ list of committee assignments.
Peters also served on the Transit Authority board this year alongside fellow Republicans Brian Scott and Chris Latvala, and all will return next year. Dave Eggers will fill Flowers’ Transit Authority seat.
This was Flowers’ first year as secretary-treasurer, a role at the Transit Authority that a board member typically holds for two years at a time. The board will instead have to pick a new one in the new year.
Flowers’ announcement last week that Peters would be replacing her — and the subsequent question of whether to pick a new secretary-treasurer then or wait — set off a fiery, emotional conversation. Gina Driscoll, a St. Petersburg City Council member who serves as the Transit Authority board’s chair, got choked up as she called Flowers a “perfect fit” for the agency.
Others suggested that Flowers’ removal was a political play, coming as it does amid intense Republican scrutiny of the agency. A bill sponsored by Rep. Linda Chaney, R- St. Pete Beach, would shrink the board to 11 members, keeping four County Commission slots and having two appointed by Florida’s Senate president and speaker of the House, both Republicans. It would also limit some policymaking powers of the Transit Authority’s board, a dimension of the bill that Peters said last week she doesn’t support.
Republican legislators also have criticized the SunRunner rapid bus line and the bus-and-turn lanes along First avenues north and south and Pasadena Avenue; questioned the legitimacy of an award naming the Transit Authority the best of its size in the country; and called for more transparency and oversight of the agency’s budget. During Tuesday’s commission meeting, Flowers said she was hurt by implications that the agency was irresponsible with money.
“When someone alludes to PSTA not being effective and efficient when it comes to its dollars, and I had to sign off on those,” Flowers said. “I take offense to that.”
Flowers said she was proud of her work at the Transit Authority and deeply disappointed to not retain her position, which she said she submitted to Peters as her top-choice committee assignment. Eggers, who has served on the board before, said he was “not jumping up and down for joy going back to PSTA.”
Peters said the move wasn’t personal, nor did she intend it as an attack on the Transit Authority. She said she tried to make Flowers’ committee assignments align with her expertise in housing.
“This notion that putting a different board member on PSTA is trying to dissect or disrupt or hurt PSTA is wrong, and I don’t think that Commissioner Latvala, Commissioner Scott or I have done anything that demonstrates we’re trying to derail PSTA,” she said.
Commissioners ultimately approved Peters’ committee placements with a 6-1 vote. The lone no vote came from outgoing chairperson Janet Long, who said she “found the recommendations to be punitive, disrespectful, incredibly disappointing.” A year ago, Long’s placement of herself on the Transit Authority board was overruled by the commission’s Republicans, who instead installed Scott, owner of a charter-bus company.
Flowers was among the yeas — she said it’s been “the custom and the practice” to adopt the chairperson’s recommendation and that she would respect Peters’ choices. That didn’t mean it didn’t sting.
“I truly felt that my service on those committees was worthy,” she said.
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