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St. Petersburg deputy mayor resigns amid ‘hostile work environment’ allegations

Stephanie Owens resigned after Mayor Ken Welch placed her on administrative leave pending an investigation.
Stephanie Owens, deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, marches in the Trans Pride Parade on June 25, 2022. Mayor Ken Welch has placed her on administrative leave following allegations of bullying and creating a toxic work environment.
Stephanie Owens, deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, marches in the Trans Pride Parade on June 25, 2022. Mayor Ken Welch has placed her on administrative leave following allegations of bullying and creating a toxic work environment.
Published Sep. 2|Updated Sep. 2

ST. PETERSBURG — Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens resigned Friday following allegations from the city’s former communications director that she fostered a “hostile work environment.”

Owens tendered her resignation about two hours after Mayor Ken Welch announced to staff that he had placed her on administrative leave pending an investigation into Janelle Irwin Taylor’s claims. Owens’ last day at the city is Sept. 9.

“Recent events distract from our impactful and intentional work to move our great city forward, and therefore I resign in the spirit of progress,” Owens wrote in an email to Welch. “I have been privileged to serve alongside committed colleagues on behalf of our city, who I know will continue to pursue the mission of equity and innovation. I look forward to continuing to be a change agent to implement that mission.”

The first scandal of the Welch administration began eight months into his tenure on Thursday, when Taylor, the city’s former communications director, abruptly resigned. She cited Owens as the reason why, saying she created a “hostile work environment” and “culture of bullying” while providing little communication or guidance.

Taylor’s accusations are similar to those made in a letter signed by some of Welch’s former campaign staff. Prior to being appointed by Welch to serve as deputy mayor and chief of policy, Owens was Welch’s campaign manager and transition director.

The letter, with signatures removed out of fear of retaliation, was provided to the Tampa Bay Times by a former campaign staffer who was one of the people who signed it. A high-ranking campaign worker who read it at that time confirmed its authenticity. The letter begins with praise for Welch’s campaign and his 15-point victory in the August 2021 primary election.

“Since the majority of the team was formed in May of 2021, the campaign’s central leadership has been vested in our campaign manager, Stephanie Owens,” the letter reads. “Over the course of the past four months under her leadership, the campaign internally has devolved into a toxic work environment that has taken form in instances of aggression, rudeness, deception, deep unprofessionalism and a general negativity to people both inside and outside of the campaign.”

It continues: “Each of us have stories and experiences that have compelled us to pen this letter.”

Owens initially referred comments about Taylor’s claims to a city spokesperson. Reached by the Times on Friday, Owens denied the allegations.

“There’s no truth to what she said,” Owens said. “But what’s more important is to keep any distractions at a minimum to allow the Welch administration to continue to drive and be successful.”

Asked about the campaign letter detailing similar allegations to Taylor, Owens said, “I do not have comment about that letter.”

Welch notified staff of placing Owens on administrative leave in an email Friday morning. He did not respond to requests by phone, text and email for comment about the campaign letter or Owens’ resignation. A news conference is planned for next week.

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“Please be assured that our governing principles set a high standard for civility and professionalism, and they will be upheld,” Welch said in the email to city staff. “If you experience any situation that you believe may violate our City policies on professional and ethical behavior, please notify your supervisor or the Human Resources Department. We will continue to move forward.”

Following Owens’ resignation, interim city spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez said there is no longer a need for an internal review. Owens made an annual salary of $217,000.

She said the mayor has asked human resources staff to develop additional initiatives to educate employees on their rights and protections meant to foster workplace civility and professionalism.

Taylor said she appreciates how Welch has responded to her concerns.

“I am grateful to Mayor Welch for taking this situation seriously and ensuring adequate investigation,” Taylor said. “I am hopeful these events will begin a period of healing and growth.”

Asked if she would take her job back if offered, Taylor said, “I would evaluate that decision if the option became available.”

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