ST. PETERSBURG — A City Council discussion over whether it’s time to strip Mayor Rick Kriseman of his authority to enact emergency coronavirus measures turned into a dispute between the mayor and a Council member over who was more in the wrong after both were photographed without a mask at the Tampa Bay Rays home opener.
The text exchange that followed between Kriseman and City Council member Robert Blackmon revealed the bitter state of affairs between the city’s elected leaders.
It was Blackmon who proposed curbing the mayor’s powers at Thursday’s meeting — then accused Kriseman of sending mixed signals about the severity of the pandemic.
He brought up a photograph of the mayor circulating social media showing a maskless Kriseman sitting at his seat in Tropicana Field during the Rays’ April 9 home opener.
“I was also concerned — I appreciated that the mayor went to opening day, go Rays — but he was spotted and photographed maskless at that game,” Blackmon said during the meeting. “So when we talk about leading by example, we need to make sure we really are and it’s not just lip service, and we live it every day.”
The mayor has enacting orders requiring masks and limiting restaurant capacity during the pandemic, drawing criticism from those who consider his policies draconian. After the meeting, Kriseman shot back at Blackmon in a text exchange, sending Blackmon a photo of the council member at the same Rays game, posing in front of the field, without a mask.
“At least I had a beer and pretzel in my hands,” Kriseman wrote. “You couldn’t see that from behind when that picture was taken. What’s your excuse?”
Trop rules require fans to wear masks at all times, except when patrons are eating or drinking while sitting in their ticketed seats.
Blackmon started his response with a laughing emoji, then wrote that he was standing six feet from others and had removed his mask for the photo. He said Friday the photo was taken while he was sitting in the city’s luxury box and that he wasn’t eating or drinking at the time.
“It’s not about an ‘excuse,’” Blackmon replied to the mayor. “It’s about being an accountable public leader who practices what they preach.”
The Council voted 6-1 to defer a vote on ending the mayor’s emergency order — which grants Kriseman certain procurement and spending powers he wouldn’t otherwise have — until May 13, two days after the Pinellas County Commission is set to decide whether to rescind or amend its countywide mask order.
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That delay also gives city staff a chance to put together legislation that would protect certain elements of the mayor’s emergency order, like the expansion of restaurant sidewalk seating, and other provisions that would otherwise disappear once the order is lifted.
Council member Darden Rice, the lone no vote, said she was afraid ending the order would send mixed messages. Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin shared that concern. She also defended the administration, saying it has not been abusing its emergency authority and noting that it has brought items before the Council for a vote, which is normal procedure.
Blackmon argued that emergency declarations should be reserved for times when the Council cannot meet, such as during a hurricane, and that he wants the pandemic response to return to “a democracy, as opposed to a dictatorship.” He acknowledged that COVID-19 remains a public health threat — more than 35,000 Floridians have died from the virus as of Friday — but pointed out several developments that to him demonstrate the actual state of emergency these days.
He said next week, St. Petersburg is set to host its second “time of emergency” Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and will also host an “emergency time” powerboat race — using his fingers as air quote marks. And he took note that the mayor attended a ribbon cutting at a grocery store.
“He was at a ribbon cutting this afternoon at a renovated Winn Dixie,” Blackmon said. “My activities and actions typically during a state of immediate danger would not be to run to the nearest renovated Winn Dixie for a photo opp.”
That comment earned Blackmon an email mid-meeting from Kriseman’s chief of policy and public engagement, Kevin King, who said the mayor went to the grocery store because a check was being presented to the county’s elementary schools.
“The event was held with respect to COVID protocols,” King wrote.
It’s the latest demonstration of the fractured relationship between Kriseman and the City Council generally, and Blackmon specifically. Back in January, the mayor drew the ire of Blackmon and his colleagues when Kriseman ordered destroyed a bait house that the Council member had hoped to put on the St. Pete Pier. Council was to take up a discussion on it that week.
The tension kept building on Wednesday. Rather than bring to Council for the third time a contract to hire a real estate consultant to help city officials evaluate the four shortlisted Trop developers, Kriseman lowered the value of the agreement to $99,000. That is just under the $100,000 threshold that triggers Council approval, allowing the mayor to execute the deal himself Wednesday. The item never made it to Thursday’s agenda.
That angered Blackmon and Council chair Ed Montanari, who said it was an end run around Council’s authority; Kriseman denied that’s why he did it. Montanari said Thursday he plans to ask Council to lower the threshold to $50,000.
And it was during that Thursday meeting that the City Council voted unanimously to oppose moving forward with the Trop redevelopment process while the Rays are still negotiating with the city. That puts the Council at odds with the mayor, who wishes to move the process forward.
Blackmon called his relationship with the mayor “confusing.” He called the mayor a “decorated public servant” and said he “always looked up to him.”
“My agenda is to do the work of the people,” Blackmon said. “I’m confused about what his agenda is and why he reacts the way he does. I would love to have a better relationship with him.
“I try to be a team player, and I’m confused by his actions a lot of the times.”
Kriseman’s spokesman Ben Kirby said the mayor “has been working in a collegial fashion with fellow elected officials for twenty years.
“He works to build and maintain friendly and constructive relationships with all Council Members. He’s not going to engage in combat with Council member Blackmon through the press.”
The mayor’s wife, Kerry Kriseman, posted her own reaction to Blackmon’s comments Thursday night on Twitter, saying the council member had “gone too far.”
“Policies around Covid-safe protocols to protect the people you serve does not equal a dictatorship,” she wrote. “It’s leadership.”