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  1. Florida Politics

The political stink of sewage: Kriseman says probes are attacks by GOP

ST. PETERSBURG — Awash in a sewage crisis, Mayor Rick Kriseman is facing a state investigation ordered by Gov. Rick Scott and a possible federal probe requested by U.S. Rep. David Jolly and Sen. Marco Rubio.

The three prominent Republicans have asked authorities to determine who is culpable for the 151 million gallons the city dumped or spilled after Hurricane Hermine.

The mayor chalked Scott's probe up to politics earlier this week. On Friday, he said Jolly and Rubio were playing politics, too.

"The reason why it feels political is that we all experienced this storm," said Kriseman, a Democrat. "Pinellas County, Largo, Clearwater, our friends across the bay (Tampa), we all had problems. But they're only pointing the finger at the city."

Kriseman noted that has endorsed Jolly's opponent in the 13th Congressional District race, former Gov. Charlie Crist. Rubio is in a race, too, against Democrat Patrick Murphy.

"Anytime you do that you get earned media, you look like you're concerned about things,'' Kriseman said. "When you look at this holistically, it looks like it's politically driven."

Kriseman, a former state representative, said he filed a bill shortly after Scott was elected that sought to create a gubernatorial recall mechanism.

"I've been told the governor doesn't forget," Kriseman said.

Nonsense, Scott's office replied.

"Those claims are absolutely inaccurate. Governor Scott directed (the Department of Environmental Protection) to investigate due to the frequency and magnitude of the sewage dump in St. Petersburg," said spokeswoman Lauren Schenone.

Jolly's office also scoffed at the mayor's interpretation of his motivation.

"This is a serious matter. Rep. Jolly will not engage in a political debate regarding an environmental crisis and he would hope Mayor Kriseman would also want to make sure no laws were broken. Rep. Jolly has spoken directly with the whistleblower at length, has referred the matter to the state agency with law enforcement jurisdiction, and the agency has accepted the matter," said spokesman Preston Rudie.

Rubio's office issued a statement that said in part: "Instead of lobbing partisan political attacks, maybe the mayor should welcome any and all assistance and focus on fixing the problems.''

One difference between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Clearwater or Largo is those cities didn't have a whistleblower. In St. Petersburg, a wastewater plant operator, Craven Askew, claimed city officials were either negligent or worse for ignoring a consultant's report predicting a disaster if heavy rains struck after the Albert Whitted sewage plant was shuttered in 2015.

Another difference is that St. Petersburg has dumped far more sewage than Largo, Tampa and Clearwater combined and about 60 percent of the total overflows and discharges in the Tampa Bay region.

With two possible investigations looming, Kriseman acknowledged that his political star has dimmed recently. No one has announced a challenge yet, but a mayoral election is a little more than a year away.

"I would imagine any investigation for any candidate is not a good thing," Kriseman said. "But there was no intentional action, no cover up. Neither me nor anyone on my team--- certainly that I know of — has done anything criminal."

State GOP lawmakers, too, have been critical of the mayor.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, said he offered to help secure state aid at a meeting with Kriseman's team after the first spills and dumps in August 2015. The mayor had other priorities, including the cross-bay ferry, set to debut in November, he said.

"We asked, 'What do you need on sewers?' What we got back was crickets," Brandes said. "They made it seem like they had everything under control."

A list of the city's priorities for state funding last year didn't include sewer money.

Kriseman now plans to ask Tallahassee to help the city fund a rebate program to encourage private homeowners to replace leaky pipes that feed into the city's sewers.

Kriseman's office said they appreciated Brandes' interest and looked forward to working with him in the next legislative session.

Ironically, it was a fellow Democrat, Crist, who kicked off the political dust storm this week. Crist had brought the issue up at Monday's debate with Jolly, comparing the city to Flint, Mich., a city now shorthand for criminal environmental mismanagement.

Kriseman said he didn't know why Crist would make such a comparison.

"I'm not sure why Gov. Crist raised the issue. I don't think it's comparable at all. Yes, we've got issues that we've got to deal with. I'm not happy about it. But the public doesn't have tainted drinking water that creates a critical health risk."

The Crist campaign said that the governor raised the issue because it's important to local constituents.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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