ST. PETERSBURG— A city engineer says Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration punished him for speaking out at the height of last year’s sewage crisis.
Engineer Steven Marshall spoke out about the incident at a Tuesday news conference organized by former Mayor Rick Baker, who is challenging Kriseman in the mayoral election.
It all goes back to the 2014 consultant’s memo warning that closing the Albert Whitted sewage plant could cause major problems for the sewer system. The plant was closed in 2015 (per a City Council vote years before) and the sewage spills began soon afterward. During the crisis, Kriseman and council members said they never saw the consultant’s warning.
Marshall wrote an October 2016 email saying that even if elected officials never saw the report, plenty of top sewer officials did.
Before he wrote the memo, Marshall said senior city officials assured him that he would not be punished. But soon afterward, the engineer said Tuesday, he was stripped of his responsibilities and projects.
"I’m here because mine is not a unique situation," Marshall said. "There are many people in the city that are currently undergoing the same type of reprisals and they’re worried about their careers because they’ve been told to stay quiet.
"I’m hoping my presence here today, in some form or fashion, will stop this, this cannot stand."
However, Human Resources Director Chris Guella said Marshall wasn’t demoted and his pay was never cut. Marshall, 55, has worked for the city since 2000 and now makes $109,622. He received his standard pay raise, Guella said.
"This administration does not insert itself," Guella said. "Not Kriseman, or senior staff, is going to get involved and start bullying workers."
Guella did confirm that Marshall was removed from a supervisory role over maintenance of sewage plant and lift station days after his email. And he was removed as project manager of the city’s $65 million project to convert sewage byproducts into energy and fertilizer at the city’s Southwest sewage plant in April. He was transferred from the Water Resources Department to the Engineering Department in June.
Baker urged others to come forward if they had been mistreated by the mayor or his administration
"No one has the political or moral authority to bully or intimidate people for political gain. No one," Baker said. "So today I am publicly calling on others who have been bullied or intimidated by the Kriseman administration to step forward and be heard."
Several Kriseman supporters outside the Gateway office building where Baker staged the news conference waved signs reading "Boxcutter Baker" and "Baker the Bully," a reference to a 2007 incident where police officers slashed homeless tents while Baker was mayor.
When asked to comment on Marshall’s allegations, Kriseman campaign spokesman Jacob Smith instead referred back to the 2007 incident.
Kriseman wasn’t available for comment, but his spokesman Ben Kirby noted that there are three levels of management between Marshall and the mayor.
The news conference was also attended by three prominent Baker supporters who have complained in the past that Kriseman has retaliated against them: St. Petersburg College trustee Deveron Gibbons, who said Kriseman complained to the college’s president after he criticized the police department; City Council member Jim Kennedy, who said he was removed from regional boards and barred from speaking with city staff after disagreeing with the mayor’s plans to let the Tampa Bay Rays look outside the city for a new ballpark; and Chris Eaton, who serves on the city’s Arts Advisory Board, who said he was verbally rebuked by Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and chief of staff Kevin King after declining to contribute to Kriseman’s reelection campaign.
None of the three men spoke at the news conference.
How the Kriseman administration handles dissent by city employees also became an issue in 2016. An administrative policy was implemented allowing workers to be fired if they spoke to the media without the permission of the mayor’s office. Kriseman soon changed the policy back to an older, less punitive one created during the Baker administration from 2001-10.
Two whistleblowers emerged from the 2015-16 sewage crisis. Craven Askew and Kyle Soriano both sought legal protection for speaking to the media about the city’s sewer problems, saying they feared for their jobs. Neither Askew nor Soriano have been punished in any way, Guella said.
"We’re not hiding anything," the city’s human resources director said.