Ousted St. Petersburg sewer officials at center of probes say they have been unfairly targeted

Ousted senior St. Petersburg officials released statements late Monday, with the city's former Public Works Administrator claiming Mayor Rick Kriseman threw them to the wolves to save his own skin during the city's ongoing sewer crisis. CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times
Ousted senior St. Petersburg officials released statements late Monday, with the city's former Public Works Administrator claiming Mayor Rick Kriseman threw them to the wolves to save his own skin during the city's ongoing sewer crisis. CHERIE DIEZ | Times
Published October 25 2016
Updated October 25 2016

Ousted senior St. Petersburg officials released statements late Monday, with the city's former public works administrator claiming Mayor Rick Kriseman threw them to the wolves to save his own skin during the city's ongoing sewer crisis.

Their decision to make a public accounting of their actions came on the heels of a day-long hearing at City Hall where eight teams of sewer consultants told City Council members that those same staffers hadn't provided a coherent framework to coordinate such a vast array of outside opinion on decisions leading up to the city's national-headline generating sewage crisis.

Mike Connors, who officially retired last year as public works administrator after a series of miscues involving sewage overflows, recycling controversies and an uproar over the choice of a Pier design, emailed the Tampa Bay Times late Monday with his first public comments since he left city employment.

Connors offered an impassioned defense of Steve Leavitt and Tom Gibson, two high-ranking officials in charge of sewer issues who were placed on unpaid leave last month by Kriseman.

At the time, Kriseman said he was suspending Leavitt and Gibson because he was unsatisfied with their responses to his queries about why the city was experiencing an unfolding crisis that has led to about 200 million gallons of spills and dumps around the city.

Connors accused Kriseman of suspending Leavitt and Gibson without fully vetting whistleblowing information provided by Craven Askew, the Northeast wastewater treatment facility's chief operator.

READ THE DOCUMENT: Memo to Mayor Rick Kriseman regarding sewage report

Leavitt has written an accompanying eight-page memo to Kriseman outlining his defense of his actions leading up to and following the sewage spills and dumps.

Kriseman's spokesman, Ben Kirby, responded to Connors' comments and Leavitt's memo late Monday.

"We understand this is a time of incredible discomfort for Mr. Connors and others, but Mayor Kriseman, City Council and the public are interested in learning how we got here and how to ensure certain things never happen again. We appreciate that Mr. Connors and Mr. Leavitt are now weighing in so that they may assist the firm conducting an independent review," Kirby wrote in an email.

Askew, the whistleblower, has pointed to a 2014 consultant report that contained warnings of sewage overflows if the Albert Whitted plant was closed, which happened last year.

That report never made such an official conclusion, Connors wrote. Kriseman used the study to sacrifice Leavitt and Gibson to avoid political damage, he wrote.

"All management staff understand they serve at the pleasure of the mayor. However, none signed up to be removed from duty and then be impugned with false allegations and innuendo related to a lack of integrity, character and professionalism," Connors wrote, citing the suspensions of Leavitt and Gibson. "They now depart being unfairly tarnished in yet another chapter of the administration's blame game."

But neither Connors nor Leavitt offer any explanation for why the city has spilled or dumped such massive amounts of sewage since the Albert Whitted plant was closed in April 2015.

Leavitt's memo outlines his argument that Brown and Caldwell, the consulting firm that wrote a 2014 study showing the Southwest plant could become overwhelmed by heavy rain-induced sewage flows, didn't explicitly recommend closing the Albert Whitted plant on the city's waterfront.

But Leavitt's memo never explains why the study wasn't shared with the Kriseman or the City Council. Instead, Leavitt says the fact that 10.5 million gallons were discharged down injection wells at the Southwest plant, which was apparently never shared with elected officials, was evidence that the subsequent report by Brown and Caldwell wasn't "hidden."

"If you want to hide a problem, you certainly do not go out and hire a consultant to study the problem," Leavitt writes.

Leavitt gives no explanation why he or other officials, like Connors, never publicly disclosed the massive dump down the wells. When Connors contacted the Times last week, he claimed to have no memory of the 2013 spill. He said he didn't remember any such violation of the city's wastewater permit.

One of Leavitt's central arguments is that the Brown and Caldwell study found a 1 in 10,000 chance that the Southwest plant would experience problems with increased flows. When Albert Whitted was closed, it reduced the city's sewage capacity by nearly 20 percent.

"Based on this information that was known at the time, a two hour event with a very low probability of occurring is not enough to stop a major project and to immediately begin spending tens of millions of dollars on facilities to address this rare event. However, as noted below, staff did respond to this information and neither ignored it nor hid it, " Leavitt writes.

But he didn't address the fact that the study only examined 22 months of flow data to reach that conclusion, a fact noted by several council members on Monday when Brown and Caldwell officials appeared before the council. Brown and Caldwell officials couldn't provide an answer to why they based their conclusions on such an abbreviated time frame.

At no point in his memo does Leavitt take any responsibility for the massive sewage discharges and spills. He also doesn't address his plan to open a valve at the Northwest plant to send partially-treated sewage into Boca Ciega Bay during Hurricane Hermine. That plan failed after the long-unused discharge pipe failed. Instead, 58 million gallons of sewage flowed into the surrounding West St. Petersburg neighborhoods.

Leavitt wrote that the Northwest plant spill was an example of a sewage plant being overwhelmed by a glancing blow from a Category 1 hurricane.

Leavitt said his department undertook changes to confront the threat presented by the Brown and Caldwell study. But the biggest change he notes was to devise plans to expand the Southwest plant to handle much bigger flows during heavy rains.

However, Leavitt told the Tampa Bay Times in June that those plans weren't "fast-tracked" until Tropical Storm Colin led to the dumping of 10 million gallons of sewage into Tampa Bay — 10 months after the initial spills in August 2015.

Connors, who abruptly retired shortly after the initial spills near Eckerd College in 2015, said Kriseman's decision to place Leavitt and Gibson on unpaid leave was "politically coincident" with Gov. Rick Scott's announcement of a state investigation into the city's handling of its sewage woes.

Leavitt concludes his memo by asking an independent auditor selected by the council to take into account his explanations and an impartial assessment of the 2014 study.

Check back to tampabay.com for updates on this breaking news story.