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Romano: Here's my mea culpa on St. Petersburg's water problems. Where is theirs?

City workers put signs up warning people of contaminated water next to the Perry Bayview Community Playground in St. Petersburg in June after sewage overflowed due to storm conditions. The city’s wastewater problem has been building for years, and involves the fingerprints of many, yet no one seems willing to accept responsibility. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published Oct. 26, 2016

Hi, my name is John. And I am at fault.

I didn't have a vote in the closing of St. Petersburg's Albert Whitted sewage plant, and I didn't arrange to bury a consultant's study that warned the closure might be risky, but I have played a role in the city's water problems, nonetheless. How? By not recognizing the severity of the problem sooner.

There was lots of evidence in the Tampa Bay Times last year. Stories about wastewater on the Eckerd College campus, partially treated sewage flowing into the bay and officials calling for an independent review. In other words, red flags were all around.

And yet, I didn't write about any of it. I did consider it. It was relevant and newsworthy. But I thought it was wonky and boring, and so I passed.

To be blunt, I screwed up. And I apologize.

Now, who's next?

Surely, someone else must have regrets. Probably a lot of someones. This disaster was not created overnight, nor alone. It's been building for years, and involves the fingerprints of many.

And yet all we seem to be seeing lately is a musical chairs version of blame. Past and present mayors shoving each other under the nearest bus, with city employees and consultants directing the bus routes. Lots of accusations and denials, and very few admissions of guilt.

And, in case you're wondering, I'm not searching for culprits or villains.

Just answers. And, along the way, it would be nice to see people who are in entrusted with the city's fortunes accept some personal responsibility.

The way I see it, there's a difference between blame and responsibility. Blame is what someone assigns to you. Responsibility is what you accept. Unfortunately, we're seeing too much of one, and not enough of the other.

My guess is everybody involved has enough plausible deniability that they figure they can hide in the weeds until it blows over. And they may pull it off.

This story is that complicated. And the list of characters is that long. It's like that Agatha Christie novel where you get to the end and realize everyone is guilty.

Did city staff purposefully withhold information or mislead the City Council? It appears that way.

Did the city hire consultants with pre-determined results in mind? The bidding process makes you wonder.

Did mayoral administrations point city staffers in certain directions? It's possible. At the very least, they permitted a renegade culture to exist.

Did the City Council pull out the rubber stamp too often when it came to staff recommendations? That's undoubtedly true. And at least a couple of council members — Karl Nurse and Charlie Gerdes — have had enough integrity to admit that.

By this juncture, you might be thinking we just need to move forward. That assigning blame now is pointless.

And for punitive purposes, I would agree. But there's a larger issue here. Something went horribly wrong in the process that cannot be written off as beyond-our-control. That needs to be fixed.

"Looking back to learn is not the same as looking back to blame,'' said council member Steve Kornell, who was one of the few who questioned the closing of the Whitted plant. "There's a thin line there, and I hope people recognize the difference.''

So, let's try this:

Less finger-pointing, and more personal responsibility.

You can blame me if it doesn't work.


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