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St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman fires one official, demotes another over sewage mess

Mayor Rick Kriseman said changes needed to be made in the Water Resources Department.
Published Dec. 21, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — At the height of public outcry over the city's sewage crisis in September, Mayor Rick Kriseman placed two high-ranking officials on unpaid leave pending an investigation.

Earlier this month, the report came in: Neither Water Resources director Steve Leavitt nor Engineering Department director Tom Gibson tried to keep elected officials in the dark about a 2014 report that indicated the city's sewage system was at the risk of massive overflows.

But on Tuesday, Kriseman decided to fire Leavitt anyway, making him the only St. Petersburg official to lose his job because of the city's sewage problems.

"We need changes in that department," Kriseman said, explaining his decision to terminate Leavitt and bring back Gibson with a demotion.

That's because the report also revealed "deep-seated" problems in the Water Resources Department, Kriseman said, which runs and maintains the city's 900-odd miles of sewer pipes and three sewage plants.

Dissension and out-of-touch leadership were noted in the investigation, which wrapped up earlier this month.

When Kriseman suspended Leavitt and Gibson on Sept. 21, the mayor said their fates would be determined by the findings of forensic accountant Laura Brock.

She was paid $25,000 to produce the report. She delivered it Dec. 9, and the report concluded that no one deliberately buried a consultant's report from 2014 that warned of sewage overflows if the waterfront Albert Whitted sewage plant was closed. The plant was shuttered in 2015, and in the next months the city dumped about 200 million gallons of waste into waterways.

Brock's inquiry will continue after the City Council voted last week to spend $2,500 more to interview a recalcitrant consulting firm, Brown and Caldwell, which produced the 2014 report but would not speak to Brock during her investigation.

Gibson will rejoin the city as an engineering-transportation design manager and earn $120,000 — $32,110 less than he made in his old post.

He was brought back because his engineering expertise can still help the city, Kriseman said, but Gibson will no longer serve "in a leadership capacity."

The mayor said that he spoke to each official several times since placing them on unpaid leave and that their fates were never intertwined. Neither Gibson nor Leavitt could be reached for comment.

Brejesh Prayman, who was appointed interim Engineering Department director, was given the job permanently on Tuesday. He will be paid $125,000 annually. A national search is under way to replace Leavitt. Interim director John Palenchar now helms the department.

Brock's investigation is not the only examination of the city's sewage mess. State and federal agencies have also taken notice. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has completed its inquiry and is reviewing it. The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also has an investigation. And the federal Environmental Protection Agency has spoken with at least one city employee.

Leavitt used enough vacation time that he was paid for about two months of his unpaid leave, said Chris Guella, the city's human resources director.

Gibson ended up with about six weeks of unpaid leave. He won't get that back, Guella said. Gibson starts his new job on Jan. 3. Guella said that it's rare for city employees to be placed on unpaid leave, but not unprecedented.

City Council member Steve Kornell said both Leavitt and Gibson gave the council misleading and inaccurate information about the sewage mess, including the role that closing Albert Whitted played in the subsequent discharges. He said he hoped the changes would spark a change in the leadership tone and style at City Hall.

"It's really important that the PR, spin and propaganda stop," Kornell said.

Council member Karl Nurse, who has been critical of the mayor's handling of the sewage mess, said Kriseman's disciplinary action made sense to him.

Leavitt bore more culpability than Gibson in the city's sewage dumps and spills, he said.

"It is logical that the water man goes away because that's where the real failure was," Nurse said. "I'm glad to have an engineer back because we're desperately short of engineers. It's time to move on."

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

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