St. Petersburg swears in Mayor Rick Kriseman with showy outdoor ceremony

At a showy ceremony, Rick Kriseman gives his first order: remove the Pier fences.
Published January 2 2014
Updated January 3 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman's time has finally come.

After winning the city's costliest election two months ago, Kriseman was sworn into office Thursday on the steps of City Hall as more than 400 residents and dignitaries watched.

He wasted no time giving orders.

Kriseman, following through on a campaign pledge, said the fences that surround the shuttered Pier will be removed. When the applause subsided, he reiterated his promise to build a new structure worthy of the city's waterfront.

"In the interim, residents and visitors should be able to once again enjoy walking, running or fishing around the pier head," Kriseman told the crowd during a 15-minute speech.

By becoming the 53rd mayor, Kriseman inherits several pressing issues, including the city's years-long stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays over a new stadium, the search for a new police chief and a continuing need to help Midtown neighborhoods engulfed in poverty.

Throughout the campaign, Kriseman talked often of these issues and how he would address them. "It's been a long and winding road," he said Thursday, "and it's time to put our destination in view."

The former City Council member and state lawmaker stressed the need to create jobs, re-brand vital corridors and eliminate red tape for small businesses.

While praising longtime staffers, Kriseman pledged to change some philosophies stagnating City Hall. He wants his employees to be more proactive.

"Simply put, our City Hall has not kept up with the city," Kriseman said. "And without adjustments, our city will not be able to keep up with other cities."

The ceremony differed from previous ones that were held inside City Hall for former Mayors Rick Baker and Bill Foster.

Kriseman showed an affinity for well-choreographed events during the campaign, and his swearing in reflected that. Roughly 30 city workers were assigned to the event. A stage and risers were erected for photographers. A choir sang at the beginning and end.

Former CONA president Kurt Donley liked the bigger ceremony, which was attended by elected officials from the city, county and state Legislature.

"I think we need to make a big deal about it," he said. "We need a break from the past. This lets people know we're doing things in a bigger way."

Bob Devin Jones, master of ceremonies and founder of Studio @620, recited a poem he wrote for the event patterned after one Maya Angelou wrote for President Obama.

The crowd came to its feet when Kriseman stepped to the podium. But all was quiet as he was sworn in. Since the new mayor was not directly in front of the microphone, much of it could not be heard by the crowd.

Kriseman said the bigger gala showed his commitment to moving forward as one community.

"Today belongs to all of us," he said. "The doors of City Hall are open and the journey toward our collective vision has begun."

He has vowed to operate St. Petersburg like it is Florida's fourth-largest city, not a sleepy hamlet.

In recent weeks, Kriseman hired eight new staffers with salaries totaling $798,500. New positions include a chief of staff and deputy mayor. With the addition of two new secretaries, the salaries jump to $885,500.

After Kriseman's speech, City Council Chairman Bill Dudley said he and Kriseman have been trying for weeks to have a meeting. While Dudley said he looks forward to working with Kriseman, he wants to talk about the $885,500 in salaries. Since the election, three high-paid staffers, with salaries totaling about $380,000, have departed.

"I need to know how he is paying for it," Dudley said. "I need to check it out."

Terese Hilliard, 56, works for the city's Community Services Department and watched the ceremony with many of her colleagues during her lunch break.

"I'm excited," said Hilliard, noting that Kriseman will be the fourth mayor she has worked under. "I think there are going to be lots of opportunities for neighborhoods."

Community activist Jeff Copeland, who has deep ties in the Midtown area, said Kriseman needs to focus on Midtown, the Pier and the stadium stalemate in his first 100 days.

"Let's get it in front of us or put it behind us," Copeland said about the Rays. "I believe he is going to do what he says."

Before Thursday's swearing in, tears flowed inside City Hall.

Several council members choked up as they heaped praise and presented awards to Foster and outgoing council members Jeff Danner and Leslie Curran.

New council members Amy Foster and Darden Rice and re-elected members Jim Kennedy and Karl Nurse then took their oaths inside the chambers.

On Monday, Kriseman will hold his first meeting with all department heads inside City Council chambers.