St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster handed out an expensive Christmas gift at taxpayer expense to the longtime city administrator who apparently prefers cash over a graceful retirement. Tish Elston qualified for an extra half-year of taxpayer-funded salary — $78,000 — this week when Foster "fired" her effective his last full day in office. The episode is a stain on Foster and Elston's service to the city and should serve as a reminder to the incoming mayor that a mayor's fiscal obligation is to constituents, not staff.
This was a firing in name only. In announcing Elston's departure from City Hall on Jan. 1, the self-proclaimed fiscal conservative Foster gushed about her dedication to the city's taxpayers, even as both were complicit in ensuring Elston walked out the door with more taxpayer money.
Elston, 65, apparently wasn't willing to wait for Foster's successor, Rick Kriseman, who takes office Jan. 2. At worst, the new mayor might have fired her — and if it was without cause, she might have received a slightly less generous severance package. Other city administrative employees are entitled to 12 weeks of severance and an additional six weeks for waiving all right to legal action. But for years, Elston has had a special deal under a 2006 agreement with Rick Baker, Foster's predecessor, that Foster later agreed to. Elston is entitled to three months' severance pay for being fired without cause and an additional three months for waiving any right to legal action.
But Elston always had another option if she didn't want to work under a new mayor: Retire. She still would have enjoyed nice parting gifts. She is entitled to $54,000 for accrued vacation and unused sick time and the ability to start collecting her retirement benefits.
It's far from the first time this outgoing administration has been indifferent to the taxpayers' purse — such as fighting Pinellas County's efforts to reduce expenses for emergency medical services and granting generous take-home car benefits to police officers who live far outside the city.
Kriseman, who has already made a series of appointments without explaining where other cost savings will come from, needs to send a different message when he enters City Hall. Public money should be spent to benefit the public interest, not for sweetheart deals for favored aides.