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Claude Tankersley wants to put the 'public back into public works' in St. Petersburg

Claude Tankersley, who started as public works chief on Feb. 22, wants to put the “public back into public works.”
Claude Tankersley, who started as public works chief on Feb. 22, wants to put the “public back into public works.”
Published Apr. 14, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG Claude Tankersley, the city's new public works administrator, wants to improve communication in a part of city government known for its engineering jargon and bureaucratic rigidity.

The central principle? There's no such thing as an overshare.

Seated in his office down the hall from Mayor Rick Kriseman, Tankersley says he makes certain that he knows exactly what is going on in his realm of city government: 650 employees spread across five departments handling the city's water, stormwater, vehicles, purchasing and capital projects, including closely-watched items like the new Pier.

"I'm right down the hall from the mayor," said Tankersley, who started Feb. 22. "I'd rather err on the side of telling them things they don't really need to know than forget to tell them what they do need to know."

Communication hasn't always been fluent between public works and Mayor Rick Kriseman. Tankersley's predecessor, Mike Connors, abruptly resigned last summer after a series of misfires: an initial refusal to pick up recycling in alleys, a messaging breakdown surrounding sewage dumps and overflows and continued rancor over future of the new Pier.

The feeling among Kriseman's inner circle was that Connors' successor had to be more responsive to public sentiment. A monthslong search was launched. In the end, the city only had to look beyond the Sunshine Skyway bridge to find their pick.

Tankersley, 50, had been Bradenton's public works administrator for nearly a decade. In that role, he oversaw the development of a treatment for arsenic that broke major ground for bringing the states' aquifer storage and recovery wells back into EPA compliance.

Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston said what stood out most about Tankersley was his ability to communicate.

"He's a great engineer, a very smart guy," Poston said. "But customer service … he was very, very good at that."

St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice has been pleasantly surprised. She said Tankersley has been very involved in some small public works projects in her district and has shown a knack for mingling with the public.

"It's been a very positive initial impression," she said. "He's been very present. He's there to problem solve."

The public sector came late for Tankersley. A Jacksonville native who graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering from the University of Florida, Tankersley was an engineering consultant for the first part of his career, working with cities on public works projects across the state.

Shortly after turning 40, he decided that the constant travel was keeping him from settling down and starting a family. He took the Bradenton job, married and became a father to five stepchildren, ranging in age at the time from 8 to 16. Now divorced, he still lives in Palmetto with his mom and, four days a week, his youngest stepdaughter, a high school student.

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Since starting in February at $149,000, Tankersley has put an emphasis on making himself more accessible to his employees, implementing quarterly department lunches. He visits each department as often as possible, often with his trademark straw hat and bow tie.

Tankersley doesn't like to dwell on past miscues by the city. Instead, he's working to reopen lines of communication with the city's partners. He started a series of emergency drills with Eckerd College to avoid the mishap that occurred in early August when the city dumped more than 15 million gallons of partially treated sewage, much of it on that college's campus.

If there is another August deluge, St. Petersburg will be ready to get the word out quickly, he promises.

Meanwhile, he'll keep making the rounds, getting the word out that the city is listening. He's even got a catchphrase: "Putting the public back in public works."

Rice said the phrase hits the right notes.

"His personal credo sets the right tone for accountability and transparency that has been much needed," she said.

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