Accusations of unprofessionalism fly at St. Petersburg City Council

Council member and potential mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon traded barbs with senior city staffers.
St. Petersburg Council member Robert Blackmon, right, traded barbs with senior city staffers, including Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, center. Mayor Rick Kriseman, left, called Blackmon's behavior "unbecoming."
St. Petersburg Council member Robert Blackmon, right, traded barbs with senior city staffers, including Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, center. Mayor Rick Kriseman, left, called Blackmon's behavior "unbecoming." [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published May 21, 2021|Updated May 21, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — The item on Thursday’s City Council agenda was billed as a quick update on a defaulted development project on city-owned land. But in the latest demonstration of the fractured relationship between Council member Robert Blackmon and Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration, the discussion devolved into accusations of unprofessionalism and ended with other Council members lamenting the erosion of decorum and pleading for composure.

The episode, which included City Council chair Ed Montanari twice gaveling down Blackmon, was the most explosive yet before this seated Council — all over something Blackmon and the body had no vote on.

Blackmon, a second-year Council member, is considering a run for mayor.

At issue was the status of Orange Belt Station, a faltered development project at 600 26th St. S that was supposed to feature a craft distillery, space for artists’ lofts and galleries and office space. After nearly four years — the project was greenlit by City Council in September 2017 and has had deadlines extended four times — Kriseman’s administration sent notices of default to the developers in April, according to the update by City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle.

The development is led by first-time developers Howard and Lucinda Johnston. The pair are Democratic activists who, in 2017, donated to Kriseman’s reelection campaign and Lucinda Johnston is now the chair of the Pinellas Democractic Party. If the Johnstons aren’t able to complete the building permit process by July 12, DeLisle said the city will reclaim control of the parcel.

Blackmon had requested the update, which came with no action item or vote. After DeLisle delivered his comments, Blackmon commenced a rapid-fire interrogation from the dais.

He asked DeLisle why the default notices were sent in April if Orange Belt missed its latest deadline in March. He then asked why he seemed to have to ask DeLisle multiple times for this update. He asked, rhetorically, when the original contract was signed and how many years it has been since then and when the pandemic began.

Blackmon suggested the Johnstons, who are white, are getting preferential treatment in a mostly Black part of the city, comparing it to a project on 18th Avenue S run by former mayoral candidate and Amscot executive Deveron Gibbons, who is Black. In that project, the city issued its notice of default when Gibbons asked for a third extension. A difference is in that case, City Council rejected the extension.

“The optics are very bad in my opinion,” Blackmon said.

Blackmon said he wanted the land back under city control and suggested building affordable housing on the lot.

DeLisle and Real Estate and Property Management Director Alfred Wendler addressed Blackmon’s questions, explaining that some of the delays with the property, which is a brownfield site, were the result of unexpected environmental concerns and the pandemic. DeLisle said that once a developer misses a deadline, several city departments coordinate due diligence before issuing a default notice.

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“I make no apologies for that, sir,” DeLisle told Blackmon.

The testiness wasn’t limited to Blackmon’s interaction with DeLisle. Council member Gina Driscoll said she wished the verbal update came with background documents on the project that she could have reviewed before the meeting, a practice that is customary. DeLisle said that since the city remains under contract with the Orange Belt group through July 12, City Council could not take any action. Driscoll and DeLisle then repeated themselves to each other.

“Mr. DeLisle, I didn’t ask you to change the contractual relationship,” Driscoll said.

“You don’t have to castigate me,” DeLisle replied. “I do have an obligation to professionally give you information.”

Later, Blackmon began speaking again, in declaratives rather than questions.

“There’s been nothing professional about this presentation,” Blackmon said, repeating concerns he had about the value of the contract, the timeline and the political connectedness of the Johnstons.

“To me,” Blackmon said, “this is disgusting and it’s not at all how government should function.”

The comment drew Kriseman from his office and compelled Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin to admonish Blackmon.

“I would respectfully request of you to refrain from accusations of unprofessionalism,” Tomalin said. “Nothing has been swept under the rug … but personal attacks of unprofessionalism of the servant leaders of this staff will not be acceptable and will not be tolerated.

“And the only thing that I find disgusting is that you would use this public forum to grandstand,” she said.

The pair spoke over each other. Kriseman called Blackmon’s comments “unbecoming of this body.”

DeLisle then addressed Blackmon, suggesting the Council member didn’t do his homework on the project — which was approved before Blackmon was on City Council — and questioning his professionalism. Blackmon began to respond but was gaveled down by Council Chair Ed Montanari, twice.

Council member Darden Rice lamented the erosion of respect and courtesy, calling them “the glue that makes things happen.” Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, whose district includes the Orange Belt Station site, said she supports the project for the jobs it could create for her residents. She pleaded for more order in chambers, as meetings are televised.

And Montanari, invoking the Golden Rule, also said he was concerned about the tone. “There’s a way to disagree with people and not be disagreeable,” he said.

The Johnstons on Friday sought to respond to Blackmon’s comments. Howard Johnston said the cost of environmental mitigation that would be required before building homes on the site would make them unaffordable. And, he said, one of the centerpieces of the development was a 6,000 square foot event space; the pandemic forced them to rethink whether such a gathering place was a good idea.

“I think Robert is campaigning for mayor, and I wish he weren’t doing it from the dais of City Council,” Howard Johnston said.

He said they are making final tweaks and plan to have the permits pulled by the July 12 deadline: “We’re pretty much ready to go.”

A motion to continue discussing the Orange Belt project at the June 3 Council meeting failed 4-4, with Council members Deborah Figgs-Sanders, Amy Foster, Rice and Wheeler-Bowman choosing to wait until after July 12 for another update.

Thursday’s dustup, while particularly heated, was just the latest between Kriseman’s administration and Blackmon. The Council member and mayor got into it in January after Kriseman ordered workers to destroy a bait house from the previous pier that was in city storage. Blackmon had wanted to discuss returning it to the new St. Pete Pier and suggested Kriseman possibly committed a crime.

In April, during a City Council discussion about ending the city’s COVID-19 state of emergency, Blackmon accused Kriseman of sending mixed signals about mask wearing because he was photographed at Tropicana Field watching a Tampa Bay Rays game without a mask. Kriseman said he was eating. Trop rules at the time permitted fans to remove their masks while eating in their seats.

After the meeting, Kriseman sent Blackmon a text message. It included a photo of Blackmon at the same game — also without a mask.