Saturday, February 17, 2018
News Roundup

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman pulls plug on hiring DEP investigator to join city department under DEP investigation

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman on Thursday vetoed a plan to hire a state employee to the city's sewer department who was involved in the state investigation of the city's massive sewage problems.

The hiring of Florida Department of Environmental Protection official Michele Duggan was set in motion by St. Petersburg Public Works administrator Claude Tankersley. City emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times revealed that Tankersley reached out to Duggan and brought her to City Hall for an Oct. 14 meeting.

The job of environmental compliance manager was posted Nov. 4, she applied three days later and was interviewed on Nov. 30 by a three-person board that did not include Tankersley.

However, during that time frame, Duggan was the point of contact for the DEP investigation looking into the 200 million gallons of sewage released by St. Petersburg's overwhelmed sewer system since 2015. City officials denied that Tankersley was recruiting Duggan, saying their Oct. 14 meeting was a casual conversation.

Kriseman met with Tankersley on Thursday morning and decided that Duggan will not become a city employee, said mayor's spokesman Ben Kirby.

"The mayor does not generally participate in hires at this level, but now that the situation has come to light he does not like the way it looks, he does not like that Ms. Duggan applied for the position, he does not like that she was invited to apply or entertained for the position," Kirby wrote in an email to the Times. "He does not like that she was named the front-runner for it. He has asked Claude to pull the plug and find someone else to do the job.

"She may have been the most qualified, but she is not the best fit. Her hire would not be in keeping with his desire to build trust around this issue."

The mayor's decision marked a quick reversal in the city's original stance on hiring Duggan.

When the Times inquired Monday about Duggan applying for a job in the city sewage department during a DEP investigation that involved that department, the city said she had applied online and emerged as a top candidate, but no job offer had been made.

The DEP didn't know she had applied until contacted by the Times, but stressed that Duggan was not the lead investigator looking into St. Petersburg's problems.

But city emails released on Wednesday revealed a much different story: Tankersley reached out to Duggan after a former colleague recommended her to fill an opening in the sewage department. They met three weeks before the job was posted and Duggan was told Dec. 2 that she was selected for the position.

The DEP investigation started in September and ended in mid-November, but during that time Duggan was in contact with city sewer officials and interviewed for the job.

Tankersley said Thursday that he regretted his actions. He said he thought that since Duggan wasn't the lead investigator for the DEP, and the city job she applied for wouldn't be covered by the state's pending consent order, there would be no conflict.

"I regret how it happened," Tankersley said.

Duggan declined to comment. The mayor did not respond to a request for comment.

Before Thursday's St. Petersburg City Council meeting, members said the incident unnecessarily damaged the public's already frayed trust in city government.

Council member Charlie Gerdes said he was frustrated when he read about Tankersley's actions — and that city officials did not tell the whole story about Duggan's hiring.

"My goodness, can we get this stuff, right?" Gerdes said. "These . . . errors and missteps. They distract from getting the real work done."

Gerdes said he believes that Tankersley wasn't trying to influence the state investigation, but was overzealous in his attempts to find a technical expert to help the city deal with the sewer crisis. But he said that doesn't excuse Tankersley's behavior.

"We can't go so fast that we don't think about doing it right," Gerdes said.

Duggan should have known better than to pursue a job with the department that she was investigating, council member Karl Nurse said. But, he added, Tankersley should have also known better than to reach out to a DEP employee involved in that inquiry and discuss job opportunities with the city that the DEP was investigating.

"There aren't a lot of white hats in this experience," Nurse said. "It obviously looks pretty messy."

The underlying problem is that the city desperately needs technical experts to help it fix its sewers, Nurse said, adding: "Just not when they're investigating us."

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

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