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Sewage crisis' latest twist: State official investigating St. Petersburg applies for city sewage job

A state official who helped investigate St. Petersburg’s sewage crisis has interviewed for a job in the department that oversees the sewer system and dumped millions of gallons of waste.
A state official who helped investigate St. Petersburg’s sewage crisis has interviewed for a job in the department that oversees the sewer system and dumped millions of gallons of waste.
Published Dec. 6, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — A state environmental official helping investigate the city's beleaguered sewer system has applied for a job with the very city department at the center of St. Petersburg's sewage crisis.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection official Michele Duggan has applied to become the city's new environmental compliance manager, according to city officials.

That position is under the Water Resources Department, which oversees the aging and inadequate sewer system that has discharged 200 million gallons of waste since August 2015.

A DEP spokeswoman said Southwest District Director Mary Yeargan is the lead investigator examining the city's sewage problems, but Duggan has assisted with the state's investigation.

"Ms. Duggan provided technical support along with other DEP staff, and is not responsible for the final product," wrote agency spokeswoman Shannon Herbon in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

However, the agency was not aware that Duggan had applied for the St. Petersburg job and was interviewed by city officials until the Times inquired about the matter on Monday.

The DEP investigation was completed in mid November and is now under review, Herbon said. Duggan applied for the job on Nov. 7, according to city records.

Duggan has worked for the state since 1989 and makes $61,999, according to a state salary database. Her title is listed as an environmental consultant. She did not return requests for comment Monday.

The job Duggan applied for is open because of the sewage mess. The city's former environmental compliance manager, John Palenchar, is now the interim director of the Water Resources Department. He was promoted to take the place of Steve Leavitt, who was placed on unpaid leave by Mayor Rick Kriseman in September for his role in the sewage problem.

Duggan was part of a DEP team ordered by Gov. Rick Scott in September to investigate the city's sewer system after rain from Hurricane Hermine overwhelmed it, sending tens of millions of gallons of waste into Tampa Bay. She is also listed as the point of contact for the proposed consent order from the state that threatens to fine St. Petersburg $820,000 and outlines steps that city officials must take to fix the problem.

When Scott ordered the special investigation, Kriseman, a Democrat, blasted the Republican governor and said the inquiry was politically motivated.

As the city's environmental compliance manager, Duggan's duties would include overseeing the testing of spilled or dumped sewage.

The mayor's spokesman, Ben Kirby, said the city did not recruit Duggan. She applied through the city's online portal and was interviewed on Nov. 30 by a three-person panel that included her predecessor, Palenchar.

Duggan is a top contender for the job but the city has not yet made an offer, Kirby said. He said the city sees nothing wrong with her applying for the position despite her role in the DEP's investigation of the city. The Kriseman administration wants to recruit "the best and brightest," Kirby said, and welcomes her expertise.

City Human Resources director Chris Guella said Duggan is "head and shoulders above the other applicants." If Duggan were to becomes the city's new environmental compliance manager, Guella said she could be paid $71,373 to $111,304 annually.

Public Works spokesman Bill Logan said Duggan wants to further her career and shouldn't be subjected to "undue scrutiny."

DEP officials did not respond to questions asking if Duggan's actions violated any rules. Hebron said the state has not received a resignation letter from Duggan.

City Council member Darden Rice, however, said she was shocked that St. Petersburg allowed Duggan to apply and interview for a job while the DEP official was taking part in a state investigation of the city.

"To say this is clearly inappropriate is an understatement," Rice said. "It's very troubling that the investigator involved in putting together the consent order is interviewing with the city at the same time. That boggles the mind."

She said it doesn't look good for city sewer officials to interview someone investigating their own performance issues.

"The appearances are terrible," Rice said.

Guella demurred.

"If I had to use a word," he said, "it wouldn't be terrible."

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