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Fired: City worker who accused Kriseman administration of bullying gets the ax

Published Nov. 15, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — A city engineer who went public with allegations of bullying and intimidation by Mayor Rick Kriseman's administration has gotten the ax.

Steven Marshall, who appeared with Kriseman's opponent, Rick Baker, days before the Nov. 7 election to complain about the Kriseman administration's bullying and intimidation tactics, was terminated Tuesday, said Chris Guella, the city's human resources director.

Marshall's comments at Baker's Oct. 31 news conference were a factor in his firing, Guella said.

"His comments showed that he was not happy, not happy with the department, not happy working in this environment," Guella said. "The city does disagree that he was bullied and intimidated."

Marshall also was "combative and antagonistic" with other employees, Guella said.

Marshall's troubles began when he wrote an October 2016 memo questioning Kriseman's account of a 2014 consultant's study that warned of possible sewage spills if the Albert Whitted sewage plant was closed without replacing its capacity.

The mayor had said he had never seen the study and suggested it may have been deliberately buried. Marshall's memo said the study had been widely distributed among sewer officials, an assertion backed up by an independent auditor hired by the City Council later that year.

At the Baker news conference, Marshall said he had been assured by senior city officials that he wouldn't be punished for the memo — written as a lengthy email to Guella — but was later stripped of most responsibilities.

Marshall said at the news conference that other city workers had been similarly punished for speaking out.

A week later, Kriseman beat Baker to win a second four-year term.

Marshall's dismissal shouldn't have a chilling effect on city workers expressing discontent with Kriseman or his administration, Guella said.

"Employees have an open door policy to go speak anywhere. We do not have a history of firing employees just because they disagree with a decision or a direction," Guella said.

Marshall said allegations that he couldn't get along with co-workers were untrue. He said he had never been counseled or disciplined for that.

"Those allegations are meant to distract from the real issues. When I wrote that memo in October 2016, I expressed the fear that I would be retaliated against. That is precisely what has happened," Marshall said. "I wasn't an angry employee."

Guella said some emails existed that showed Marshall had problems with colleagues, but didn't provide them to the Tampa Bay Times.

Kriseman's spokesman Ben Kirby said the mayor didn't know in advance about Marshall's termination.

The mayor's office later issued a statement, which also referenced a second high-ranking sewer official who worked his last day on Tuesday.

"Administrators and directors are empowered to make personnel decisions for their departments," it read. "Mayor Kriseman fully supports those decisions. He thanks both Mr. Gibson and Mr. Marshall for their service to our city and wishes them well."

Gibson, who had served as interim public works administrator, will formally retire Jan. 1, although he'll be on leave until then.

Kriseman suspended Gibson for about three months in 2016 for his role in the sewage crisis, during which millions of gallons of sewage were discharged in or near area waterways during heavy summer rain events. The mayor later brought him back with a demotion.

Guella said the city "mutually" decided with Gibson, 60, that he was ready to retire after a 30-year career with the city.

"It had nothing to do with his performance. It just wasn't the best situation from the city's perspective. It really wasn't a good fit," Guella said.

Gibson, who had also served as engineering director, made $122,152.

Marshall, 55, who had worked for the city for 17½ years, made $109,622.

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

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