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St. Petersburg's embattled public works administrator Mike Connors retires abruptly

ST. PETERSBURG — Public Works Administrator Mike Connors abruptly retired Monday, ending a 28-year career at the fulcrum of City Hall, where he pulled the levers on a broad range of high-profile projects.

His sudden departure came after a morning meeting with the fourth consecutive strong mayor Connors has advised: Rick Kriseman. In a statement, Connors said he and Kriseman mutually agreed that he will retire — "effective immediately."

The surprise statement followed a series of stumbles on programs that Connors managed, including the launch of curbside recycling, the delayed demolition of the Pier, and emergency sewage dumps in Boca Ciega and Tampa bays earlier this month.

Since joining the city in 1987 as engineering director, Connors, 61, climbed the ranks to become one of the most powerful city staffers, overseeing massive projects like the Pier, the new police headquarters and the start of curbside recycling.

But he was passed over for the job of city administrator by Kriseman in favor of Gary Cornwell in January 2014. Then this summer proved particularly bruising for the tall, silver-haired Connors, an administrator respected for his intelligence but resented for what some considered arrogance.

Kriseman cut his duties last month, stripping him of oversight over the sanitation and purchasing departments after rising public discontent over the botched recycling rollout.

And he also oversaw the stormwater department, which gained attention in 2013 when a white supervisor was suspended, not fired, after spraying a black employee's work vest with a KKK symbol. Many employees felt the supervisor should have been fired. The suspension left a disconnect between some city employees and management.

News of Connors' departure drew plaudits from City Council member Darden Rice.

"It's been obvious we've needed new leadership in Public Works for a while now," Rice said. "We've seen a troubling series of missteps."

She said she was especially concerned about Connors' push for the closure of the Albert Whitted sewage plant in April. In August, storms swamped the aging pipes, overloading a system that could have been helped by the missing capacity. The system had to dump more than 15 million gallons of untreated sewage.

"When elected officials start to lose confidence in staff, that's no way to run a city," Rice said.

Former Mayor Bill Foster said Connors was a good fit early on in his administration, but his credibility "eroded" over time.

"Once you lose your credibility, you don't get it back," Foster said. "We were going to have a groundbreaking on the police headquarters during the last year of my administration. Two years later, they're still trying to figure that one out."

The $70 million police headquarters is now expected to open in 2018.

Not everyone cheered Connors' departure, saying his contributions to the city were impressive and shouldn't be overshadowed by recent setbacks.

Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes said he was "shocked" at the news of Connors' unceremonious exit.

"So much of where St. Petersburg has arrived at, so much of everything that's gone right with our city for the last 30 years has Mike Connors' fingerprints on it," Gerdes said. "I'm just not sure we have anybody to step into his shoes. That's not a criticism of anybody else, it's just that Mike was such a leader on so many projects."

Kriseman named Tom Gibson, the city's director of engineering and capital improvements, as Connors' interim replacement.

The mayor hasn't decided if the city will undertake a national search for a permanent replacement, said Ben Kirby, Kriseman's spokesman.

Connors made $152,028 annually. A severance package, in addition to unused vacation and sick time, will net him an additional $92,000. If he agrees not to sue the city, he'll get paid $17,544 more.

Connors has three weeks to decide if he'll waive litigation, Cornwell said.

In a statement, the mayor praised Connors' service to the city, calling his contributions "immeasurable" and praising his leadership on the Pier, recycling and the new police station.

Connors didn't respond to a request for comment, but said in the statement that he looked forward to new adventures and challenges.

"I thank the city for the opportunity to serve for nearly three decades," he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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