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Romano: Tension between Kriseman, council becoming harder to ignore

Mayor Rick Kriseman isn’t filling in the City Council before making his plans public, council members say.
Published Oct. 24, 2015

Their words are chosen carefully. In some cases, with great trepidation.

One after another, St. Petersburg City Council members express regret at what they are about to say. And yet, every council member I reached tells a similar story.

There is, they say, a gulf between them and Mayor Rick Kriseman's office. They talk about a lack of communication and a diminished sense of teamwork. In some cases, there are vague suggestions of a lack of courtesy and even petty retaliations.

"Council members, on a regular basis, feel not particularly included in significant decisions. Or we're an afterthought," said member Karl Nurse. "Clearly the mayor's office doesn't see it that way, but the net result is that there is unnecessary tension.

"Of the three mayors I've served under, there is more friction than with the other mayors by a noticeable amount."

In past years, member/mayor squabbles may have been more public — see Leslie Curran vs. Bill Foster — but they were limited to one or two members.

The issues with Kriseman aren't as publicly visible, but the six members I spoke with said they exist councilwide.

The biggest issue?

Members say the mayor's office frequently makes unilateral decisions without seeking council input, and then gives members a quick heads-up before announcing it publicly.

This forces them to either openly question the mayor's decisions in council meetings, or else blindly go along with his recommendations.

As council chairman, Charlie Gerdes is in a unique position to see it from both sides. He says he has a good relationship with Kriseman, but that's helped by the regularly scheduled meetings that have always existed between the chair and the mayor.

"The mayor, rightly so, felt he had very good, personal relationships with a lot of people on council. When I say good relationships, I mean a like-mindedness, similar values, similar priorities," said Gerdes. "I think he believed our ideas were of the same ilk, and that when he came up with something that he wanted to do, we would just be on board. And it's not that that's untrue.

"I think the difference is people would just like to be informed about his ideas before they become public. They'd like some input, some discussion.

"Instead we're looked at like a rubber stamp."

Kriseman sounds exasperated and somewhat baffled as the complaints are relayed to him. He says his door is always open, and council members are also free to reach out to Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin or chief of staff Kevin King.

He said his staff could probably do a better job with communication, but suggests the problem might have more to do with boundaries.

For instance, it was the mayor's job to negotiate end-of-lease terms with the Tampa Bay Rays, and council's decision to offer new terms oversteps that protocol.

Kriseman has also made it clear that St. Petersburg needs to start operating as a big city, with the implication that council members may have been slow to accept inevitable changes.

"I've been clear that I want to bring St. Pete along to a point where we act like, and are run like, the fourth-largest city in Florida," Kriseman said. "I understand that's different from the way it's been, and maybe that's caused some uncomfortable situations at times. That was never my intent."

Several members also pointed to minor indignities suffered by Jim Kennedy, who opposed the mayor's original deal with the Rays. Kennedy acknowledged that monthly transportation meetings he had with the mayor were inexplicably canceled.

He also received a memo that said he was in violation of the city's efficiency guidelines because he was talking to city staffers about issues not on council agenda. Kriseman says Kennedy was taking up too much of the staff's time.

The point, Kennedy says, is he and other council members simply want some insight into the mayor's thinking before issues end up in the newspaper.

"If I can compare it to Mayor (Rick) Baker, he would have individual conferences with every council member, or he would have (city administrator) Tish Elston meet with us so you would have input into an issue and potentially tweak it beforehand," Kennedy said. "The irony is City Council was considered a rubber stamp for Mayor Baker, but it was only because he talked to individuals and counted every vote before it came to council."

Darden Rice says part of her duty as a council member is to have a positive relationship with the mayor, and so she regularly schedules meetings with him. She praised Kriseman for being attentive to issues she has brought in front of him, but also said the prevailing atmosphere at City Hall needs to improve.

"There could be a better sense of working with people ahead of time," Rice said. "I'm not talking about egos, but at some point there has to be some respect that we're elected officials with constituencies as well. Even though there may be different perspectives, different decisions, different ideas … I think there would be better outcomes.

"It doesn't need to be as confrontational as it has been."

And that's the most important point. Whether you think council members are too whiny or the mayor is acting like a bully, the whole episode seems unnecessary.

These are not people who should be at odds. At least half the council has supported or worked on campaigns with Kriseman and King. And, like the mayor, seven of the eight council members are Democrats. Even Kriseman says the issues have less to do with philosophy and more with implementation.

So is it time for St. Petersburg to grow up? Absolutely. And do council members, at times, seem too small-minded? Definitely.

But being needlessly heavy-handed serves no useful purpose. Keeping council in the loop isn't just a courtesy, it's smart politics. St. Petersburg may be growing, but it doesn't need to operate in the self-serving style of Tallahassee or Washington, D.C.

This administration is off to a great start in terms of accomplishments, but it could be doing even better with more cooperation from council.

Kriseman often writes personal thank-you notes to council members for certain votes. This week, he might consider some I'm-sorry notes, too.

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