Monday, July 16, 2018
News Roundup

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman fires one official, demotes another over sewage mess

ST. PETERSBURG — At the height of public outcry over the city's sewage crisis in September, Mayor Rick Kriseman placed two high-ranking officials on unpaid leave pending an investigation.

Earlier this month, the report came in: Neither Water Resources director Steve Leavitt nor Engineering Department director Tom Gibson tried to keep elected officials in the dark about a 2014 report that indicated the city's sewage system was at the risk of massive overflows.

But on Tuesday, Kriseman decided to fire Leavitt anyway, making him the only St. Petersburg official to lose his job because of the city's sewage problems.

"We need changes in that department," Kriseman said, explaining his decision to terminate Leavitt and bring back Gibson with a demotion.

That's because the report also revealed "deep-seated" problems in the Water Resources Department, Kriseman said, which runs and maintains the city's 900-odd miles of sewer pipes and three sewage plants.

Dissension and out-of-touch leadership were noted in the investigation, which wrapped up earlier this month.

When Kriseman suspended Leavitt and Gibson on Sept. 21, the mayor said their fates would be determined by the findings of forensic accountant Laura Brock.

She was paid $25,000 to produce the report. She delivered it Dec. 9, and the report concluded that no one deliberately buried a consultant's report from 2014 that warned of sewage overflows if the waterfront Albert Whitted sewage plant was closed. The plant was shuttered in 2015, and in the next months the city dumped about 200 million gallons of waste into waterways.

Brock's inquiry will continue after the City Council voted last week to spend $2,500 more to interview a recalcitrant consulting firm, Brown and Caldwell, which produced the 2014 report but would not speak to Brock during her investigation.

Gibson will rejoin the city as an engineering-transportation design manager and earn $120,000 — $32,110 less than he made in his old post.

He was brought back because his engineering expertise can still help the city, Kriseman said, but Gibson will no longer serve "in a leadership capacity."

The mayor said that he spoke to each official several times since placing them on unpaid leave and that their fates were never intertwined. Neither Gibson nor Leavitt could be reached for comment.

Brejesh Prayman, who was appointed interim Engineering Department director, was given the job permanently on Tuesday. He will be paid $125,000 annually. A national search is under way to replace Leavitt. Interim director John Palenchar now helms the department.

Brock's investigation is not the only examination of the city's sewage mess. State and federal agencies have also taken notice. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has completed its inquiry and is reviewing it. The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also has an investigation. And the federal Environmental Protection Agency has spoken with at least one city employee.

Leavitt used enough vacation time that he was paid for about two months of his unpaid leave, said Chris Guella, the city's human resources director.

Gibson ended up with about six weeks of unpaid leave. He won't get that back, Guella said. Gibson starts his new job on Jan. 3. Guella said that it's rare for city employees to be placed on unpaid leave, but not unprecedented.

City Council member Steve Kornell said both Leavitt and Gibson gave the council misleading and inaccurate information about the sewage mess, including the role that closing Albert Whitted played in the subsequent discharges. He said he hoped the changes would spark a change in the leadership tone and style at City Hall.

"It's really important that the PR, spin and propaganda stop," Kornell said.

Council member Karl Nurse, who has been critical of the mayor's handling of the sewage mess, said Kriseman's disciplinary action made sense to him.

Leavitt bore more culpability than Gibson in the city's sewage dumps and spills, he said.

"It is logical that the water man goes away because that's where the real failure was," Nurse said. "I'm glad to have an engineer back because we're desperately short of engineers. It's time to move on."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

Comments
SEC media days: LSUís season could be defined by Miami, Gators

SEC media days: LSUís season could be defined by Miami, Gators

ATLANTA — With criticism already heating up on LSU coach Ed Orgeron, don't be surprised if the Tigers' season ends up getting defined by their performance against two Florida teams.The first comes on the Sunday of opening weekend, against Miami...
Updated: 12 minutes ago
SEC media days: Pressure already on for Jimbo Fisher

SEC media days: Pressure already on for Jimbo Fisher

ATLANTA — When new Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher walked to the stage Monday for his first SEC media days, he knew exactly what to say.Howdy."That's an A&M thing," Fisher explained.So Fisher knows how the Aggies say hello. Which is progress,...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Tampa provocateur charged in fracas over racist slur returns to corner, claims self-defense

Tampa provocateur charged in fracas over racist slur returns to corner, claims self-defense

TAMPA óTony Daniel is undeterred.Three days after his arrest on an assault charge, the 60-year-old race-baiting provocateur was back on the same street corner Monday, shouting into a megaphone and holding a large sign with the same racial epithet tha...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Editorial: Trump sides with Putin over America

Editorial: Trump sides with Putin over America

In one of the most surreal news conferences of our time, President Donald Trump actually stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday and called the federal investigation into Russiaís meddling into the 2016 election "a disaster for our coun...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Pinellas news briefs

MarketSpace For Good opens in St. Petersburg MarketSpace For Good will celebrate its grand opening from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. Along with showcasing the products of local entrepreneurs, the retail space at 6785 46th Ave N in St. Petersburg will ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
More than 30 Riverview residents awaken to broken car windows

More than 30 Riverview residents awaken to broken car windows

More than 30 unlucky Riverview residents woke up Monday morning to find their car windows had been smashed in.The Hillsborough County Sheriffís Office is currently searching for a pair of subjects in the rash of damages, according to a news release. ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Woman swerves off cliff and survives 7 days trapped on a secluded beach

Woman swerves off cliff and survives 7 days trapped on a secluded beach

Angela Hernandez does not remember much about the accident - plummeting down an oceanside cliff in central California.She does not remember hitting her head, fracturing ribs and her collar bone or losing air from one of her lungs. But the 23-year-ol...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Florida suspends payment to SunPass contractor until tolling system is fixed

Florida suspends payment to SunPass contractor until tolling system is fixed

The Florida Department of Transportation announced today that it will suspend all payments to the SunPass contractor until the electronic tolling system is fixed.In a letter sent to the president of Conduent State & Local Solutions, Inc., David Amori...
Updated: 2 hours ago
CVS employees call 911 on black woman trying to use a coupon

CVS employees call 911 on black woman trying to use a coupon

Couponing while black?Add it to the list.On Friday, a Chicago woman tried to use a coupon at CVS when a store employee told her the slip was fake and another worker called the police. The incident stands as the latest known example of racial profilin...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Amazonís Prime Day runs into snags swiftly

Amazonís Prime Day runs into snags swiftly

NEW YORK ó Amazonís website ran into some snags quickly Monday on its much-hyped Prime Day, an embarrassment for the tech company on the shopping holiday it created.Shoppers clicking on many Prime Day links got only an abashed-looking dog with the wo...
Updated: 3 hours ago