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Clean slate? Reelection gives Kriseman fresh start with council

By Charlie Frago
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman celebrates his reelection victory at his watch party at Nova 535 after Tuesday night's election. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG ó Now that Mayor Rick Kriseman has prevailed after a bruising election, City Council members say they hope for the same thing in his second term: a clean slate.

Council chair Darden Rice said it. So did Charlie Gerdes. Both are stalwart Kriseman allies, but each acknowledged that Krisemanís relationship with other council members hasnít always been a smooth one.

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During the recent mayoral election, tensions often spiked between the mayorís office and members, especially those who supported Krisemanís opponent, former Mayor Rick Baker.

Those bumps, however, came before the mayorís victory Tuesday night, winning 51.6 percent of the vote to earn another four-year term.

"Thereís an opportunity to (reset) the relationship," Rice said.

The mayor wasnít available for comment Wednesday. His spokesman, Ben Kirby, said Kriseman looks forward to working with City Council, which saw two new members elected Tuesday. Gina Driscoll and Brandi Gabbard will take the oath of office in January.

"We have two new council members," Rice said, "and thatís a blank slate opportunity to build effective allies."

The personal styles of Driscoll and Gabbard should mesh well with their colleagues and the mayorís office, said council member Karl Nurse, who is leaving office in January due to term limits. Driscoll will replace him.

Driscoll supported Krisemanís re-election bid so they should get off on the right foot, Nurse said. Gabbard didnít endorse anyone for mayor, but Nurse thinks that wonít hamper her dealings with the mayor.

"Sheís got very strong people skills," Nurse said. "I would expect she would be good at finding common ground with the mayor."

Neither Driscoll nor Gabbard returned requests for comment. Kriseman knows both new council members, Kirby said, and has a positive impression of them.

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Gabbard will replace Jim Kennedy, who is also leaving because of term limits. Kennedy has frequently clashed with Kriseman and endorsed Baker. Kennedyís experience is also a cautionary tale for council members: He bucked Krisemanís plan to allow the Tampa Bay Rays to look outside the city for a new ballpark. Kennedy ended up losing a committee seat and had his access to city staff curtailed.

Council members Steve Kornell and Ed Montanari have also been frequent thorns in Krisemanís side. But Nurse believes bad blood only exists between Kornell and the mayor.

Kriseman didnít endorse Kornell, a fellow Democrat, for reelection in 2015. Kornell stayed neutral in the mayorís race but publicly questioned the administrationís failure to fully inform the public about 15.5 million gallons of sewage that was injected into the aquifer after Hurricane Irma. Kornell took to Facebook to complain about it on Oct. 19, roiling the mayorís race just weeks before the election.

Montanari, the councilís only Republican, has philosophical differences with Kriseman. But Nurse said their relationship appears to be cordial. Neither Kornell or Montanari returned requests for comment.

Does Kennedy see the mayorís strained relationships improving in a second term?

"I guess thereís always opportunity," he said. "I donít see any indication of a change."

Nurse has also been critical of the way the mayor has treated council members in the past, but credits Kriseman with stepping up his diplomacy in recent years.

"Kriseman will continue to get better at the process," Nurse said. "Itís really about making sure itís more of a team sport and that people get to be involved in things early on and feel that their voice is heard."

The strain between Kriseman and council members started showing after the mayorís first attempt to broker a Rays deal failed in 2014. Then came more speed bumps: curbside recycling and fallout over the first sewage spills in 2015.

Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said things improved by the time she joined the council in 2016. That year, the council blessed the mayorís deal with the Rays.

"Itís with some council members that the relationship is strained, but Iíve never had an issue," said Wheeler-Bowman, another strong Kriseman ally. "If I call with an issue they jump right on it."

Said Gerdes: "A fresh start is a good opportunity for everyone."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]