St. Pete Council member accuses mayor of ‘illegal activity’ in bait house demolition

The pair faced off over Kriseman’s unilateral decision to destroy a bait house the council member wanted on the pier.
The pier bait house was originally constructed on the 1926 Million Dollar Pier. It was removed in 2015 and placed into storage, where it remained until Mayor Rick Kriseman ordered it destroyed last week.
The pier bait house was originally constructed on the 1926 Million Dollar Pier. It was removed in 2015 and placed into storage, where it remained until Mayor Rick Kriseman ordered it destroyed last week. [ ZUPPA, CHRIS | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 8, 2021|Updated Jan. 11, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — City Council members don’t frequently use the dais as a setting from which to conduct sharp direct examinations of the mayor in a public setting.

But that spectacle is exactly what happened Thursday, when City Council member Robert Blackmon inquired pointedly of Mayor Rick Kriseman over his decision to destroy a bait house that Blackmon had an interest in preserving and installing on the new pier.

Related: With discussion looming, Kriseman ordered nearly century-old bait house destroyed

The showdown, while dressed in polity, was nonetheless remarkable. In the end, in a show of solidarity, the council rebuked Kriseman, voting to hold a future discussion about the possibility of building a replica of the bait house, even as the mayor urged the body not to waste everybody’s time.

While ostensibly about the bait house, a structure of history but of questionable historical value, the confrontation was a proxy fight over purview and separation of powers, a breakdown in the collaborative relationship that council and the mayor usually enjoy.

The little hut, which sat on St. Petersburg’s pier since 1926, spanning two structures, was removed in 2015 before the demolition of the inverted pyramid pier and placed in storage. Last year, City Council member Robert Blackmon began asking Kriseman’s administration about the possibility of having it refurbished and reinstalled on the new St. Pete Pier.

The pier bait house sat in storage for five years underneath Interstate 275.
The pier bait house sat in storage for five years underneath Interstate 275. [ City of St. Petersburg ]

A discussion about the proposal was set for Thursday, but before it could take place, Kriseman ordered the structure demolished.

Blackmon used the reserved time during Thursday’s meeting to question Kriseman’s motive and timing, and why the mayor didn’t ask him before ordering it demolished.

“I tried to follow the process here and I tried to do this right,” Blackmon said. “It appears it simply gave you guys a head start to begin the demolition process.”

The mayor said he didn’t know Blackmon was working to save the bait house when he ordered it destroyed, a decision within his purview as the city’s administrator. He said back in 2015, the city offered the shack — which had been renovated so many times since 1926 that nothing of the original structure remained of it, officials said — for free, and it was in such bad shape that nobody wanted it.

He added that a proposal to reinstall the shack on the pier was dismissed early in the pier planning process and, in the meantime, it was taking up storage space. Kriseman said he wouldn’t dedicate public funds to refurbish the structure while the city remains strapped for cash during the pandemic.

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When the mayor found out about Blackmon’s initiative, it didn’t change his mind, he said. If it was such a priority for Blackmon, Kriseman said, he should have called.

By that point in the meeting, the tension had been building, and Blackmon asked if an appraisal was conducted on the building before it was knocked down to determine how much taxpayer value was lost.

“This feels a little like a quasi-judicial cross-examination, which is kind of odd,” said Kevin King, Kriseman’s chief of policy and public engagement, who had stepped to a lectern.

Blackmon then asked if there had been any study of asbestos or lead before workers demolished it.

“I’m just worried that there’s been illegal activity regarding this,” Blackmon said.

“You should be very careful when you start accusing people of illegal activity,” Kriseman said in response.

Other Council members also expressed displeasure with Kriseman’s decision.

“I don’t know man, this looks sketchy,” said Council Vice Chair Gina Driscoll. “And so I was hoping to find some more answers that made it a little bit clearer and a little bit more acceptable. But as it stands right now, I find it unconscionable that a historic structure… has been destroyed.”

Council Chair Ed Montanari said he was “disturbed” by the news, lamenting it had “cut the head off” an idea before it could vetted.

Brandi Gabbard struck more of a conciliatory tone, suggesting the new year could be an opportunity for a reset. She told Kriseman that the council is looking “for the same communication and respect that you and your staff (request) from us.”

Ultimately, Blackmon requested that a council committee look into building a replica of the bait house and installing it on the pier where it could be rented and generate revenue. Some council members said they likely wouldn’t support spending city funds, but were open to a discussion. Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said she’d vote against it.

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and Kriseman both implored the body not to make them commit city staff time to such an endeavor since it wouldn’t change their minds.

Council voted 6-1 to have a committee discussion about the bait house, with Wheeler-Bowman the lone no vote and Amy Foster absent.