ST. PETERSBURG — Rather than go before City Council for a third time to seek approval to hire a consultant on the Tropicana Field redevelopment project, Mayor Rick Kriseman went ahead and executed the contract himself.
The contract for HR&A Advisors, who will serve as an “owners representative” to help city officials weigh the four shortlisted Trop proposals and negotiate with the developers, was reduced this week to $99,000. That’s just under the $100,000 threshold that triggers mandatory City Council approval. At that price, Kriseman was legally allowed to unilaterally punch it through, thwarting any attempt by Council members to discuss or vote on the deal, or hear public input.
The mayor alerted City Council of his decision in a memo Wednesday. In it, he said delays imposed by Council caused the scope of service to shrink, reducing the value of the contract. Two Council members didn’t buy it.
“I didn’t like it at all,” Council Chair Ed Montanari said by phone Wednesday. “It’s just a pure blatant attempt to bypass the St. Petersburg City Council and I don’t like it one bit.”
“This really does remove any chance for public input on this, and every step in the process involving the Trop site should have public input,” said Council member Robert Blackmon.
Kriseman’s decision to hire HR&A comes amid escalating tension between City Council and the mayor over the redevelopment of the Trop site’s 86 acres. According to the mayor’s timeline, he could select a developer to lead the project as soon as next month, and a development agreement could be in place before he leaves office in January. But Council members have expressed their concerns with the pace of the selection while the future of the Trop’s main tenant, the Tampa Bay Rays, remains uncertain.
The Rays’ executive leadership is scheduled to appear before City Council on Thursday to discuss their wants and desires, including a proposal that the mayor summarily rejected to build a new stadium on the site in exchange for control over a portion of the property. At least four council members have previous indicated they’re uncomfortable moving forward with the development before the Rays have made clear their intentions.
“We’re rushing things based on the timeline of a political tenure,” Blackmon said Wednesday. “A term in office should not set a timeline for our city’s wellbeing.”
Council and the mayor have twice before sparred over this particular contract. The first time was in January, when Kriseman’s administration asked for $180,000 to hire HR&A to sift through the seven submitted proposals. Council balked, taking the opportunity to express frustration at feeling left out of the process and the seemingly quick pace of the project. Instead of face a no vote, the administration, which had lobbied hard for approval, yanked the item, saying HR&A’s expertise wasn’t necessary.
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The second time was this month, when the contract — smaller in scope at $140,000 because Kriseman’s administration had already created a shortlist of four proposals — again came before City Council. The item was initially slated to be heard during the April 1 meeting, but the meeting was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak in City Hall. During the subsequent meeting, on April 8, the body decided to table the vote until the April 15 meeting, immediately after the Rays’ presentation. Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin was agreeable to that.
Since that time, Kriseman said, the agreement with HR&A changed. Had HR&A been hired April 1, they would have traveled to St. Petersburg to participate in last week’s public engagement sessions about the project. Had they been hired April 8, the night of the last session, they would have watched that one virtually and reviewed the previous two. Cutting that line item saved the city $4,000.
HR&A was also going to help city officials prepare for, and then participate in, individual interviews with the developers, which are to begin Friday. Without that prep period, the $12,000 line-item was reduced down to $5,000.
And finally, city officials cut an open-ended $30,000 line-item in the contract that would have directed HR&A to assist the city in other services.
Together, the cuts equaled $41,000.
“Had the matter been taken up and voted on either when first presented to council or when brought back to council, I would not have had the authority to execute the agreement without an affirmative vote of council,” Kriseman said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
Council member Darden Rice declined to comment. Council members Brandi Gabbard, Deborah Figgs-Sanders, Gina Driscoll, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Amy Foster did not return requests for comment.
Montanari said the cuts, to exactly $99,000, were “suspicious,” calling the move “a stunt.” Blackmon called the number “a slap in the face” and “a flex.” He said it would have been more understandable if the contract value was something like $80,000.
“The administration seems like they’ve got the football and if we don’t play the way they want us to play, they’re going to take the football and they’re going to go home,” Montanari said.