ST. PETERSBURG — The city quietly changed its rules a few weeks ago about how St. Petersburg employees can interact with the media.
It boiled down to this: Unless you had permission from the mayor's office, don't speak to the media — or you could be fired.
The updated policy took effect Aug. 26. It expanded on a policy created a decade ago under former Mayor Rick Baker, which had no punitive language.
The Tampa Bay Times queried Mayor Rick Kriseman's administration on Tuesday about what motivated the policy change. The mayor reversed course that evening and said he decided to strip out the punitive language.
Kriseman said Wednesday he would consider making explicit that the policy only covered "on the record" communication with the media.
"That language about discipline, that part is really unnecessary," the mayor said. "I meet with new employees all the time. This is a team. Intimidation or being punitive is not how you do it."
Kriseman said no specific news article or incident prompted the city to amend the 2006 policy and insert the firing clause. He said the city was merely trying to formalize a policy that had been in place since he took office in 2014, which was to make sure accurate information was disseminated to the public.
"This isn't in response to an incident that's occurred," he said. "I want to make sure we can get it right."
Before the change was announced, Rick Smith, chief of staff of the Florida Public Services Union, told the Tampa Bay Times that the policy unjustly muzzled city workers.
How could employees tell the public about wrongdoing or inefficiencies if they knew their department head wouldn't approve? Why, Smith asked, would they be threatened with punishment for telling the truth?
Smith could not be reached Wednesday to comment on the updated policy.
Kriseman's office said he changed his position Tuesday when he found out other Florida cities like Tampa and Miami didn't include punitive language.
"When it was brought to his attention that the language was unique to the city, he decided the union had a point," said major's spokesman Ben Kirby.
Pinellas County doesn't have a written policy that prevents employees from talking to the media either, said Della Klug, senior executive assistant to the county administrator.
For many years, the city had an informal policy about employees going through their department heads — who in turn sought approval from the mayor's office — before speaking to the media, City Administrator Gary Cornwell said Tuesday.
The new policy essentially codified that informal policy, he said. He originally thought it had been explicit, but couldn't find anything in the previous rules and regulations that included punitive language regarding speaking to the media.
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Prior to Kriseman's decision, city officials explained, discipline would have been handled on a case-by-case basis, he said. Depending on the case and the employee's prior discipline history, Cornwell said, punishment could be as light as a verbal reprimand or it could lead to the worker being fired.
The policy wouldn't affect a city employee speaking out about public issues such as the presidential election or the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, but "information pertaining to city operations that is not available to the general public."
It also would not prevent the public from requesting public records, he said.
Before the city changed course, Tampa media lawyer Jim McGuire had said the policy had been written very broadly and appeared intended to curb what city employees could say to the media.
But it was legal, he admitted. A 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision found that a government employee's speech is not protected under the First Amendment if that worker's speech is in regard to their job rather than their life as a private citizen.
McGuire, a partner at the law firm of Thomas and LoCicero, said these policies can often backfire. He cited Baltimore as an example. The mayor banned city employees from speaking to the Baltimore Sun, which only generated more stories for the newspaper. Such policies could also encourage even more employees to speak to reporters anonymously.
But cities keep implementing such policies, McGuire said, to punish whistleblowers and prying reporters alike.
"It absolutely can be a vindicative policy," he said.
Cornwell said he didn't know if any employees have been punished or fired in the weeks since the policy took effect.
McGuire said the policy could have the effect of silencing public employees.
"The reality is they don't want people to say anything against the picture they're trying to paint," McGuire said.
Council member Karl Nurse said the old media policy made no sense.
"You can't have too much transparency,'' he said Wednesday. "I'm glad the mayor has seen that point of view.''
Times staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at email@example.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.