Who stays, who goes? Inside Ken Welch’s transition to St. Petersburg City Hall

Welch has tapped an out-of-town consultant to lead the transition. Some members of his campaign team will remain in his administration, and some familiar faces will stick around.
Ken Welch appears at an election night party on Nov. 2 in St. Petersburg. He was declared the winner in the St. Petersburg mayoral race.
Ken Welch appears at an election night party on Nov. 2 in St. Petersburg. He was declared the winner in the St. Petersburg mayoral race. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Nov. 23, 2021|Updated Nov. 24, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — Ask Mayor-elect Ken Welch what his first 100 days will look like in office, and he says they’ve already started.

Since before August’s primary election, Welch has been meeting with city officials to discuss ongoing and emerging issues, like Tropicana Field and the ramifications of the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill.

Those issues will be the focus of committees Welch is convening to identify recommendations and opportunities for improvement in the short- and long-term. They’ll tackle safe and healthy neighborhoods, affordable housing, the environment, education and youth opportunities, infrastructure and resiliency, and business support and economic opportunity.

The heads of those committees are expected to be announced next week, and there will be opportunities for public input too, a process that will run from December to February.

New Orleans-based consultant

At the helm of the transition is consultant Michelle Thomas, recommended to Welch by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. Thomas has worked in the transitions and administrations of Cantrell, Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins, and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, when he was mayor of Newark, N.J.

“Michelle Thomas was an absolute asset to my transition team and will provide the expertise necessary to build the most cohesive administration for Mayor-elect Ken Welch,” Cantrell said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

Welch said he’s spoken to those mayors and others, in Florida and throughout the country, seeking their advice.

“They all say, don’t feel pressured to come in and make a lot of changes organizationally, that it’s better to come in and actually see what’s happening and talk to folks as a mayor before you make changes,” Welch said.

Thomas introduced Welch to Perkins, the Shreveport mayor, about six or seven months ago, Perkins said. He added that Thomas knew from day one the essential systems that were needed to run his city’s government effectively.

“It was invaluable for me. I can’t think of what things would’ve been like starting off without her guidance,” Perkins said. “It probably would’ve taken twice as long had she not helped me in the beginning.”

It is not clear how much Thomas will be paid; Welch said he did not know, and a records request filed with the City of St. Petersburg came back empty. Thomas did not return requests for comment.

New Orleans-based consultant Michelle Thomas was tapped by St. Petersburg Mayor-Elect Ken Welch to lead his transition into City Hall.
New Orleans-based consultant Michelle Thomas was tapped by St. Petersburg Mayor-Elect Ken Welch to lead his transition into City Hall. [ Think Thomas Consulting ]

Who’s staying, who’s going?

With less than seven weeks till his Jan. 6 inauguration, Welch says he isn’t ready to announce his slate of city officials. He said, however, there would be “no sweeping exits” for staff under departing Mayor Rick Kriseman.

“There’s no plan to come in and just make a whole bunch of changes to organization,” he said.

But those involved in his campaign are expected to stick around.

Stephanie Owens, a public policy strategist and chair of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority governing board, who served as Welch’s campaign manager, is up for the opportunity.

“I am honored to have the opportunity to have run Ken’s campaign and honored to have the opportunity to help any way that I can. He’s an extraordinarily amazing leader,” she said. “I’m always interested in doing whatever I can to be helpful to St. Petersburg.”

Doyle Walsh, who served as an aide to Janet Long, Welch’s colleague on the Pinellas County Commission, was integral to Welch’s campaign. He is someone Welch said he has in mind for his administration.

“We’ve had discussions and I hope to be a part of it,” Walsh said. “I’m excited about the possibility.”

Welch and Darden Rice, the termed-out City Council member who finished third in the August mayoral primary behind Welch and Robert Blackmon, had hinted at the possibility of working together, comparing themselves to President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and to President Joe Biden and Kamala Harris — political rivals who joined forces.

“I have a lot of pokers in the fire,” Rice said in a text. “I am planning some new things for my post-city council life that I am very excited about. As always, I wish success for Ken and will always be on hand to help our community as an experienced city leader.”

Some of Kriseman’s team will not be returning. Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin will be the chief operating officer at Eckerd College.

Welch said he wants to bring on his own crew for high-level positions like chief of staff.

“That chief of staff needs to be somebody that I’m on board with and will be my chief of staff,” Welch said. “That’s a given.”

Welch said he doesn’t have anyone in mind to be his communications director. And he said he wants to talk the city’s director of urban affairs, Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, out of leaving.

“I’m honored that he would like me to stay, and I’m definitely committed to helping him make a smooth transition,” Gaskin-Capehart said.

As for St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway?

“Absolutely love him,” Welch said. “He’ll be there.”

“My plan is to stay on with this administration and continue the work we’re doing now,” Holloway said. “He’s (Welch) going to bring us some more ideas and I’m looking forward to working with him. As soon as he asked, I was ready to say yes.”

And for a first City Hall dog? Welch said he plans to adopt a pup over the holidays to be named either Sunny or Buster.

Sunny was the crowd favorite when Welch posted an informal poll on his Facebook page. But he prefers the name Buster — it all depends, he said, on the rescue’s personality.