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Another St. Petersburg official says he fears 'retaliation' for sewage crisis

Signs at St. Petersburg's North Shore Park last month warned people to stay out of the water due to contamination from sewage released by the city's sewer system after it was overwhelmed by Hurricane Hermine. This week, city emails show another employee fears for his job because he said knowledge of St. Petersburg's sewer issues runs "contrary" to statements made by Mayor Rick Kriseman's office. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published Oct. 14, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — The city's Water Resources Department — already overwhelmed by a 14-month sewage crisis — has several employees fearing for their jobs.

Two plant operators have stepped forward to blow the whistle on questionable decisions that may have contributed to the 200 million or so gallons of sewage that has been released by the city's sewer system since August 2015. The crisis has also resulted in two senior officials being placed on unpaid leave.

This week, city emails show another employee fears for his job because he says his knowledge of St. Petersburg's sewer issues runs "contrary" to statements made by Mayor Rick Kriseman's office.

"I am in fear of losing my job due to retaliation for revealing information and supporting documents that are contrary to the story that is being presented by the Administration," Steven Marshall, the department's energy efficiency and sustainability manager, wrote to Human Resource director Chris Guella on Oct. 7.

Marshall, 54, has worked for the city since 2000. He coordinated with Brown and Caldwell, a Tampa consulting firm, to conduct the now highly scrutinized 2014 report that predicted that the city would suffer major sewage problems if it shut down the Albert Whitted treatment plant.

The city did just that in 2015. Last month, the mayor said he never saw that report. City Council members have said the same.

Last week, the St. Petersburg City Council hired independent forensic auditor Laura Brock to investigate who knew about the 2014 report and whether or not it was kept from the city's elected leaders.

In his Oct. 7 email, Marshall pushed back against the narrative that city leaders didn't know about the consultant's report, saying it had been widely circulated within the Water Resources and Engineering departments. Eckerd College also had access through an online site, he wrote.

"I know that it is never prudent to be on the opposite side of the narrative of the administration, but I feel that if I do not defend myself against these claims," Marshall wrote, "I will be blamed for decisions made with regard to the closing of (Albert Whitted), a decision which I had no (role) in."

Marshall could not be reached for comment.

The mayor's spokesman, Ben Kirby, said that employees' fears are part of the reason why the city hired an auditor to look into the sewage crisis.

"This is why the city is engaging Laura Brock's organization, and we have every confidence Mr. Marshall's memo and the issues he raises will be part of her review," Kirby said.

Two of Marshall's superiors, Water Resources director Steve Leavitt and Engineering director Tom Gibson, were placed on unpaid leave by Kriseman after the 2014 report became an issue last month.

The report came to light after Craven Askew, a chief plant operator at the Northeast plant, sought federal whistle-blower protection. Askew sent council members a series of documents outlining how the city should have known that closing its Albert Whitted facility put the city at risk of sewage overflows.

This week, another plant operator, Kyle Soriano, said he asked for a written record of his superiors' request to open a valve at the Northwest plan so they could try to pump sewage directly into Boca Ciega Bay to relieve pressure on their overburdened plant after Hurricane Hermine. The Sept. 3 plan failed, sending even more sewage into neighborhoods around the plant.

That is one of the aspects of the sewage crisis being investigated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The level of scrutiny that St. Petersburg already faces led the City Council on Thursday to delay a proposed management evaluation of the Water Resources department. The state and city inquiries have placed the department under a lot of stress, council members said, and taken up a lot of employees' time.

And with plans to reopen the Albert Whitted wastewater facility and expand the Southwest plant to alleviate the sewage problem, members believe the department is reeling under a heavy workload and new leadership.

Council member Charlie Gerdes put it this way: "I'm concerned about evaluations and investigations to affect their ability to actually do the things we want them to do."

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

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