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Kriseman takes criticism over sewage at City Council meeting

ST. PETERSBURG — With a state investigation under way and possible federal action looming, Mayor Rick Kriseman faced harsh music at City Hall on Thursday, making a rare, extended appearance at a regular City Council meeting to hear often fierce criticism from council members and the public.

In his opening remarks, Kriseman vowed more attention, staffing and transparency in dealing with the sewage crisis. The city has dumped or spilled about 151 million gallons this year, creating huge dirty plumes in Tampa Bay and sending walls of wastewater coursing across major streets.

Kriseman portrayed former senior staff — including Tom Gibson and Steve Leavitt, placed on unpaid leave Wednesday, and former public works administrator Mike Connors, who abruptly resigned after the first spills in August 2015 — as deceptive, secretive and weak, and pinned much of the blame on them.

"It wasn't a personnel problem, it was a leadership problem," Kriseman said.

His current public works administrator, Claude Tankersley, praised a wastewater official, Craven Askew, who has blown the whistle in the past week. Askew revealed a 2014 study that warned against closing the Albert Whitted wastewater plant. After the plant was closed, the city's sewage woes began.

Askew also poked holes in Kriseman's argument that the 58-million-gallon spill at the city's Northwest plant was clean, treated sewage. Other experts have backed up Askew's claims.

On Thursday, Kriseman said he didn't do a good job communicating. For example, council members were not informed of the west St. Petersburg spill until the Tampa Bay Times reported it.

"Obviously, communication was one of those we did bad at and something we can improve on," Kriseman said.

The city will hire a communications specialist skilled in crisis management to engage the public about sewer issues, Kriseman said.

Council members didn't hold back in their criticism of the mayor. Darden Rice said the city was in danger of becoming the "chamber pot of Tampa Bay" and threatened to call for a special attorney if Kriseman's office didn't improve its transparency.

Ed Montanari told the mayor to stop blaming his predecessors and withholding information that eventually surfaces in the Times.

Chairwoman Amy Foster lambasted Tankersley for admitting to reading several reports, including the 2014 study, just last weekend.

Meanwhile U.S. Rep. David Jolly, who along with Sen. Marco Rubio has called for an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency, said he had turned over materials gathered by his office to a state law enforcement agency with powers of environmental oversight. Though Jolly wouldn't name the agency, it almost certainly is the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Gov. Rick Scott has already called for a state investigation by the Department of Environmental Protection.

Council members voted Thursday for an independent audit and review of why the 2014 study was kept hidden. Kriseman offered the council the choice of an internal review or an outside audit.

"Trust has been broken, and I can't support an internal audit," said Lisa Wheeler-Bowman. Her colleagues agreed.

Kriseman also said he would lower the threshold of expenses that would escape council review from $100,000 to $50,000, one of Foster's ideas. Council members also unanimously adopted Jim Kennedy's idea to get updates on sewer progress every two weeks.

The 2014 study warning of the dangers of closing Albert Whitted cost $94,000 and was never vetted by council members.

Kriseman said he would support reopening the Albert Whitted plant. Tankersley said that could cost up to $40 million and take as long as two years.

The mayor also said he wanted contractors to work seven days a week when possible to fix the leaky sewer system. He'll ask the state for help on financial incentives for residents to fix their private pipes.

The mayor's presentation was upbeat, calling the crisis an opportunity and saying he was glad the public was focused on the problem. He spoke of leading the city to a brighter future.

But a string of residents didn't appear to hear that message. They spoke of seeing people playing in sewage-fouled water and a mayor whose office was slow to communicate the extent of the damage. Too much attention was paid to branding and politics, they said, too little to nuts-and-bolts government.

An apparently chastened Kriseman said he, too, wanted to get answers as quickly as possible.

"We'd like to have closure also," the mayor said. "We're moving as fast as we can."