The Times ran an interesting story the other day about an official of the city of St. Petersburg who hired, for personal work on various rental property that he owned, contractors who also were getting big money through his city department.
One company did $10,000 worth of work on rental property that this fellow owned in St. Pete Beach, my colleague Michael Van Sickler reported; the company got $558,000 in public business. The comparable figures for the other three were:
• $2,450 for his personal roofing work; $834,000 in public business.
• $10,000 for his personal roofing work; more than $100,000 in public business.
• $14,000 to reconstruct his garage; $649,000 in public business.
The first issue, of course, is whether this was merely an unwise mixing of personal and public business or something worse. Even the man himself now admits it was "poor judgment."
And since this is Christmastime, I am okay with a minimum verdict of "poor judgment" — unless something else comes out indicating a sweetheart deal or a quid pro quo, in which case, whoa Nellie and call the feds.
(For what it's worth, I also have e-mail defending him as a great guy who has spent his career helping widow women and the needy of St. Petersburg, a man who is popular and much-liked among community groups, and a nice guy who is about to retire to boot. So who am I, the Grinch?)
On the other hand …
What really came through in the article was the amateurish and bumbling way that City Hall operates.
Not for the first time, we see that Florida's fourth-largest city is run more like a family-owned produce stand.
Van Sickler found that the process of awarding this business in the first place had no checks and balances, or even formal procedures. Bids sometimes came in past the deadline, unsealed.
There is no record that the housing official, Thomas K. de Yampert, ever disclosed his conflicts of interest until after a citizen complaint.
A former deputy mayor told Van Sickler that yes, he even spoke to de Yampert about this some years back. But he doesn't remember exactly when. There is nothing about it in the personnel file. The former deputy mayor said there was a subsequent investigation. No record of it.
Finally, in 2009, years after some of the contractors worked for him, de Yampert asked for a legal opinion.
In a rare burst of sense, the city's legal guys advised him that if he was going to hire city contractors for personal work, he should get competing bids and an affidavit from them saying he was not getting a special deal. (Which would be a fine standing policy.)
De Yampert said he had done all that — but, oops, he can't find the paperwork now. The city, again, says it has no record of it.
De Yampert's boss said he can't find this paperwork either. His actual quote: "I can't tell you where I put it. I have too many things spinning around in my head."
A state official was quoted as expressing surprise about St. Petersburg's lack of formal procedures. To continue with the comedy of errors, let's go directly to the subsequent paragraphs of the article:
De Yampert said the city imposed a new bid policy in December 2007.
But when it was pointed out that the (state) concluded there was no bid procedure in place by March 2009, de Yampert said he didn't know when it was implemented. (De Yampert's boss Joshua) Johnson said it was late 2008 or early 2009, but then later said he didn't know.
To top it off, the city dragged its feet at producing public records about any of this, and insisted that the public records had to be censored before they could be viewed.
This is not brain surgery. It is about the most elementary of good practices.
And it lies squarely at the feet of the city's "strong" mayor, Bill Foster — who at every step during his first year has turned out to be an obedient captive of the City Hall bureaucracy that he refused to shake up. Foster has become the Stepford Mayor, replaced with a passive copy of himself.
Hello? Mayor? Hello?