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Amid sewage crisis, St. Petersburg department must also deal with racial tension

ST. PETERSBURG — The city agency at the center of last year's sewage crisis is the Water Resources Department. While the city spewed hundreds of millions of gallons of waste into neighborhoods and waterways, the director was fired and the department was beset with questions about accountability, transparency and even competence.

But in the midst of that emergency, the department faced another crisis: racial tension.

The department was roiled after its highest-ranking black official was forced out in April 2016. His job was eliminated when the department was reorganized last year.

The departure of former assistant director Dwight Wilson angered many workers in water resources who believed he was one of the few officials trying to improve conditions in a sector of city government that has long been divided by race and plagued by dysfunction.

Wilson, 50, had been the department's assistant director since January 2007. His position was eliminated in a reorganization ordered by Public Works Administrator Claude Tankers­ley, who took over during the early stages of the sewage situation in early 2016.

Wilson went on leave after his $119,887 job was eliminated. He was officially off the city payroll in September.

That means one of the city's highest-ranking water resources officials was sidelined as the crisis peaked in August and the city released 200 million gallons of sewage.

Wilson declined to comment for this report. But most of a dozen or so current and former water resources employees told the Tampa Bay Times that the department's problems are deep-seated. To them, Wilson's ouster marks a return to a "good old boy" culture.

According to city records, 13 out of 15 salaried supervisors in water resources are white.

Wilson has filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was the sixth EEOC complaint lodged against water resources since Mayor Rick Kriseman took office in 2014. By comparison, that same department had two EEOC complaints filed against it during the tenure of the previous mayor, Bill Foster.

Kriseman administration officials say the uptick in EEOC filings stem from new sensitivity training that made workers more comfortable speaking out.

St. Petersburg human resources director Chris Guella said half of those complaints have been closed without the federal agency taking any action, which he said was evidence that those complaints were the product of disgruntled employees, not systemic racism.

Tankersley declined to be interviewed for this story but issued this statement:

"I flatly deny that there is any (as you put it) 'good-old-boy' network that was exclusionary for minorities and women in the Water Resources Department," the statement read. "I have made it a priority — in my time here — to make that a non-issue."

Wilson's departure wasn't the only incident that stirred racial resentment.

Shortly after Wilson's job was eliminated last year, a white supervisor in the Water Resources Department filed his own EEOC complaint, alleging that he was harassed by his superiors for promoting a black employee.

Northeast plant operator Craven Askew, who is white, promoted Maress Scott, who is black, to a supervisory position in 2013, according to records.

But in May, Askew filed an EEOC complaint that said his supervisors harassed him and retaliated against him.

Askew would go on to become a pivotal figure in the sewage mess: In September, he publicly criticized the city's handling of the crisis and sought protection as a whistle-blower. He still works there.

The EEOC concluded that the city did not violate any federal laws in Askew's complaint. Scott also filed an EEOC complaint, which is still active. Scott was later fired by the city.

Jessel Millet, 58, who has worked for the city for nearly three decades, said water resources' problems have gotten worse since Wilson lost his job.

Millet, who is black, was one of several workers who applauded Wilson's attempts to address problems of race relations and favoritism in the department of about 325 people.

"We had racial issues in this department," Millet said. "We needed a minority, somebody to help us level the playing field down here. We did not have anybody we could go to and explain our plight to them."

Wilson's departure "created intense fear" among the rank and file in water resources, said Rick Smith, chief of staff for the Florida Public Services Union.

"People were extremely angry about that shakeup," Smith said. "It was inexplicable."

Guella said he was surprised to hear about workers' fears. He said no one approached City Hall about those issues.

Wilson wasn't forced out because of his performance, Guella said. He blamed a faulty management model where employees were unsure of the chain of command between Wilson and his old boss, former Water Resources Department director Steve Leavitt.

"Managers didn't know who the real authority was. There were conflicting opinions and or responses," Guella said. "It was just inefficient."

Former water resources director George Cassady, who oversaw Wilson from 2008 to 2012, said he struggles to understand his former colleagues' fate.

"I was really taken by surprise that they reorganized in a way that he wouldn't have a spot," said Cassady, now the director of Hillsborough County Public Utilities. "Dwight is a true believer in training and opportunity for employees. I thought he bridged that gap pretty well."

Millet doesn't buy the city's explanation. He thinks Wilson was forced out because he was trying to change a culture that excluded women and minorities.

"He was outnumbered, outgunned, everything," Millet said.

Guella said there was no other job in the department or city that was a good fit for Wilson, who then was one of the highest-ranking black managers in city government.

Wilson's old boss, Leavitt, was later fired by the mayor in December. Kriseman said the sewage mess demanded changes at the Water Resources Department.

Angela Horvath, 40, left the Water Resources Department in 2015 after four years. She said Wilson was a bright light in a management culture that often lacked accountability and was beset by infighting and exclusion.

"It got to be too much working in that culture; it was demoralizing and it was unprofessional," Horvath said. "My issue was that I didn't see managers being held to any sort of professional standard. Basically, there's this 'good old boy' culture there."

She pointed to two climate surveys she conducted in 2103 and 2014 showing widespread discontent among workers. When asked to describe challenges facing the department, the anonymous responses frequently mentioned a "good old boy system" and "favoritism."

The water resources and stormwater departments have long had problems with racial tension and other dysfunction, Guella said. After a stormwater supervisor sprayed a Ku Klux Klan symbol on the uniform of a black worker in 2013, sensitivity training was put in place, which Guella said has improved the situation.

"It really has," he said. "We've not had some of the tension. Perceptions are better."

Kriseman has also created more training opportunities for workers so they can move up the ladder, Guella said.

But city officials dispute that any "good old boy" system exists. Guella said that's a negative term that unfairly describes a group of close-knit managers who have spent years working together and forged friendships.

"It's not 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours,' " he said. "These people were just more comfortable working together. And that can be cultural."

Race isn't the problem, Guella said, but rather a status quo mentality.

Kriseman declined to comment on this story, but did issue a statement Friday in support of Tankersley's reorganization and said progress has been made at water resources.

"I have long been aware of the climate in some of our Public Works departments," the mayor's statement said. "That's why I have taken meaningful steps to correct it, like instituting inclusivity training and management reviews."

Millet, a former union steward who now supervises maintenance at Water Resources Department headquarters, had a different take: "The cabal reigns again."

Times news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

Amid sewage crisis, St. Petersburg department must also deal with racial tension 03/13/17 [Last modified: Sunday, March 12, 2017 9:30pm]
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