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St. Petersburg hires auditor to dig into sewage crisis, but how deep can they dig?

The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday agreed to pay $25,000 to hire an independent forensic auditor who will try to dig into the causes of the city's 14-month sewer crisis. One of the questions: why didn't the mayor or the council know about a 2014 consultant's report that predicted the sewage mess if the city closed the Albert Whitted waterfront wastewater facility (which the city did in 2015.) One of the plant's 750,000 gallon structure, called a clarifier, is seen here. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]

The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday agreed to pay $25,000 to hire an independent forensic auditor who will try to dig into the causes of the city's 14-month sewer crisis. One of the questions: why didn't the mayor or the council know about a 2014 consultant's report that predicted the sewage mess if the city closed the Albert Whitted waterfront wastewater facility (which the city did in 2015.) One of the plant's 750,000 gallon structure, called a clarifier, is seen here. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council on Thursday agreed to pay $25,000 to hire an independent forensic auditor who will try to dig into the causes of the city's 14-month sewer crisis.

But just how deep can that investigation go?

The accountant hired by the city has no subpoena power. Yet two officials at the center of the crisis have been placed on unpaid leave and a third has retired. That raises questions about how much power the accountant has to compel them to answer questions and dig into the root causes of St. Petersburg's sewer mess.

Still, the council unanimously voted to authorize Laura Brock, a forensic certified public accountant, to start interviewing current and former employers about the city's sewer system.

Many of the questions the accountant has been tasked with answering concern a 2014 report from the Tampa consulting firm Brown and Caldwell, which predicted the city might suffer sewage problems if it closed the Albert Whitted waterfront wastewater facility. The city did so in 2015.

Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council said they never saw the report or its predictions, which were proven true in recent months. Its findings were included in a 2015 draft version of a report to council, but removed from the final version presented to council members in August 2015, weeks after the city's initial spills.

Since then, the city has spilled or dumped about 170 million gallons more of raw or partially-treated sewage into Tampa and Boca Ciega bays as well as city streets, residents' yards and public parks.

Council members want to find out why the report was never made public.

"It's really a fundamental question of we need to know who can we trust," said council member Karl Nurse. "Who instigated the 'let's hide the ball' and who went along with it and who knew about it?"

The St. Petersburg officials who could help answer those questions — who once oversaw the sewer system at crucial moments — are no longer in City Hall.

Public Works Administrator Mike Connors, who Kriseman has blamed for much of the sewage mess, retired abruptly after the first releases of waste last year.

Water Resources Director Steve Leavitt and Engineering Director Tom Gibson were placed on unpaid leave by the mayor in late September after whistleblower Craven Askew, chief plant operator at the city's Northeast plant, brought the 2014 consultant's report to light, along with other key documents.

Before council members voted to hire Block, city attorneys warned them that the accountant would not have subpoena power, so the city would have no way to compel Connors, Leavitt or Gibson to answer questions or cooperate with the inquiry.

But legal staff members also believe there are reasons why those officials could choose to speak to the auditor.

"We believe wanting to clear your own name may be incentive enough," said assistant city attorney Jeannine Williams.

However, council member Charlie Gerdes wondered if it's worth spending taxpayer dollars on a non-criminal probe.

Other council members said it was an option worth pursuing if it can help restore the public trust in St. Petersburg's government and bring clarity to how the city ended up in this mess in the first place.

The city's investigation into the sewage crisis isn't the only one. Far more potent probes have been launched by other government agencies.

Last month, Gov. Rick Scott ordered the state Department of Environmental Protection to investigate the city's sewage discharges. This week, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the state's environmental law enforcement arm, opened its own inquiry.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, however, has not launched an investigation. That position did not change on Friday, a spokeswoman said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

St. Petersburg hires auditor to dig into sewage crisis, but how deep can they dig? 10/08/16 [Last modified: Monday, October 10, 2016 10:13am]
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