25-year run ends for St. Petersburg city administrator

Jan. 1 will be the last day at City Hall for Tish Elston, 65.

DIRK SHADD | Times (2009)

Jan. 1 will be the last day at City Hall for Tish Elston, 65.

ST. PETERSBURG — With Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman taking over Jan. 2, City Administrator Tish Elston is leaving after serving taxpayers for 25 years.

Mayor Bill Foster fired Elston. Her last day is Jan. 1.

Elston, who earns about $157,000 a year, will walk away with a payout of about $125,000. That includes six months of severance pay worth $78,000 and about $54,000 in unused vacation and sick hours.

Politics factored into Elston's departure. Kriseman has hired nine high-paid aides to join him at City Hall, including long-time human resources director Gary Cornwell, who was promoted Monday to replace Elston on an interim basis.

"In order for Mayor-elect Kriseman to begin his term with a leadership team of his own choosing. I am releasing you from your duties," Foster wrote in a letter to Elston that was copied to the City Council and City Attorney John Wolfe on Monday.

The move allows Elston to collect the severance pay. The separation agreement was signed under former Mayor Rick Baker, Foster wrote.

When asked to respond the to the move, Foster replied: "This is common with mayoral transitions. This frees the new administration up to assemble his own team."

While that happens in other cities, turnover has been rare in the top jobs at St. Petersburg City Hall. Most administrators have served Florida's fourth-largest city for decades.

Kriseman also is bringing in a deputy mayor and a chief off staff, two roles not in the Foster administration. Cornwell earns about $120,000 a year; it was unclear Monday how much he will earn in his new job.

Elston could not be immediately reached for comment.

When Elston walks out of City Hall next week, decades of insider knowledge will leave with her.

She has been the city administrator since October 1999 and oversees finance, billing and collections, budget and management, human resources and information services.

Foster called Elston, 65, an "incredible resource" and an even better friend.

"Her passion for the citizens and staff and her knowledge of the city will be solely missed," he said. "St. Petersburg is a better place because of Tish."

As soon as Kriseman unseated Foster in the November election, speculation swirled over whether Elston would remain at City Hall.

Although Kriseman hired nine top aides, none can match Elston's experience at keeping services flowing to residents.

Baker praised Elston for being a hard worker who adhered to the highest-ethical standards.

"She was a huge asset for the city," Baker said. "She was the engineer who kept the trains running."

Elston moved to the city in 1973 but worked across the bay. She oversaw fiscal services in Hillsborough County government for 14 years before coming to St. Petersburg city government, where she served her first 10 years as budget director.

Earlier, she worked at the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and at Indiana University, her alma mater.

During her tenure, Elston spent thousands of hours sitting at the dais listening to City Council members debate ordinances or other important matters. When council members stumped staffers with questions, they often turned to their right.

Elston knew the answers.

"She served the city well," outgoing council member Leslie Curran said. "I wish her the best. She has done a good job."

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @ markpuente.

25-year run ends for St. Petersburg city administrator 12/23/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 10:17am]

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