Thursday, January 18, 2018
News Roundup

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman halfway through his first year, big decisions ahead

ST. PETERSBURG — A little more than halfway through his first year in office, Mayor Rick Kriseman packs his days with as many staff briefings, community meetings and small business tours as possible.

He's still getting to know the pace of city bureaucracy, he said last week, but he's generally pleased with where things stand.

"It's been a whirlwind, but it's been energizing," he said.

Issues that dogged his predecessor, such as the fate of the Tampa Bay Rays and the Pier, remain unresolved. But people seem willing to be patient a while longer. City Council members, for the most part, liked Kriseman's first budget even as they've demanded more detail and inclusion in the process than in years past.

The new mayor made his first big hire in police Chief Tony Holloway, but is still in search of a new economic development director.

"I think he's doing a great job," said retired businessman Craig Sher, who has served on many community boards at Kriseman's request. "It's not perfect, but the thing I like about him is he's a true leader."

Proof of that, for Sher at least, was Kriseman's decision to steal Holloway from the Clearwater Police Department.

"I like the idea that he got public input, but I also really like that he got his own person," Sher said, referring to the fact that after a months-long search that included collecting lots of public opinion, Kriseman abandoned his own short list and went with Holloway.

Yet Kriseman's handling of the police chief search is exactly what troubles resident Roy Puck.

A few weeks ago, Puck would have had no complaints about Kriseman. He considers the Pier one of the city's most pressing issues, and he attended Kriseman's inauguration to congratulate him on removing the fences around it.

But doubts have settled in.

He now wonders if, in the end, the mayor will pick a Pier design of his own choosing rather than one a majority of people want.

"Am I expecting the mayor to be absolutely perfect? No," said Puck, 59. "But it makes people step back and say, 'Oh, well if he can do this with the police chief, what will he do with the Rays, what will he do with the Pier?' "

Sher also has concerns about the Pier.

"We're getting bogged down in all these hearings and input (sessions)," he said. "I hope, and I am optimistic, that he will make an equally bold decision like he did with the police chief, to just pick something. Let's get it done .... I think we're all tired of nothing happening."

One issue yet to stir up much trouble for the mayor is the fate of the Rays. Kriseman has been meeting with team officials about their desire for a new stadium but has kept the substance of those conversations private.

"We realize there is a timetable, but the most important thing is to get it right and put this issue behind us," said Kevin King, Kriseman's chief of staff. "I think the residents of the city, fans of the Rays, enjoy being able to watch the games and not worry about the business of baseball."

King wouldn't speculate on how much time the mayor has to address the baseball issue before the public grows restless.

"The mayor has his own sense of urgency about this," he said.

• • •

Council members said they've been happy with the new administration. Some, though, have questioned its size, and the relationship hasn't been without other hiccups.

In recent weeks, the council demanded more information about the budget, seeking to avoid a repeat of last year's late-into-the-night budget haggling. The council is also considering a charter change that would allow members to speak freely about mayoral appointments after disappointment with the police chief search.

Council member Amy Foster took office this year expecting to have more one-on-one interaction with the mayor, but since January she has met with him only once. The mayor expanded the number of staff in his office, she said, but that hasn't made it easier to navigate.

It's not always easy to know who to go to for information, she said. She has made appointments with Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin only to get a follow-up weeks later from someone else.

"I think we've had a break-down in communication," Foster said. "But it seems like they're trying to fix that."

Council member Karl Nurse praised the way the administration worked to bring transparency to capital project budgets after it was discovered this spring that old projects routinely remained open. The work had long been completed, but the account wouldn't be closed until the money was needed elsewhere.

Council Chairman Bill Dudley, who meets with Kriseman every Tuesday, said he has been happy with the access he has to the mayor and likes the outside people Kriseman has hired, which includes Tomalin, King and four others.

But he said many, including himself, "still aren't sure" it's ultimately worth it to have so many on the public payroll.

"We ran the city up until this year with fewer people," Dudley said. "That's certainly not a knock (on Kriseman). It all depends on the style you want. A lot of great leaders surround themselves with people who help them."

Kriseman said that is how he operates — by soliciting input and opinions to inform his own choices.

• • •

The police chief search wasn't the only instance in which the public input process was muddied.

Retired assistant police chief Cedric Gordon was one of many that Kriseman tapped for his volunteer transition team early this year. Gordon said he felt the administration essentially abandoned the work he did for the public safety subcommittee.

"A lot of people were disappointed with the transition team," said Gordon, whose group authored a scathing six-page report about the police and fire departments. "The public safety committee worked extremely hard to give the mayor's office a solid foundation. Nobody ever got back with us."

The reports are posted on the city's website, but they're rarely mentioned around City Hall.

Though officials had said there would be a final report compiled, none was ever delivered to the mayor, spokesman Ben Kirby said this week.

Kriseman said he's fine with that.

"They knew their job was to provide me with ideas," Kriseman said. "It was more a process whose purpose was to give me information I could utilize immediately or three years down the road. You can choose to use, choose to ignore, choose to take pieces from ..."

Kriseman, noting that past St. Petersburg mayors had not used a transition team, said the process also served to bring different parts of the community together. Some suggestions, like those from the subcommittee focused on neighborhoods, are being incorporated into city strategies now.

"In my mind, the dialogue never ends," Kriseman said.

Gordon said he expected more follow-up. He wonders if the report will get a new look now that the city has a new police chief.

"I spent a lot of my personal time working on that report," Gordon said. "I'm hopeful somebody will take a look at it and give it the consideration."

Contact Kameel Stanley at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.

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