Mayor Ken Welch defends former Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens amid allegations

Welch said he will not have a deputy mayor in his administration but rather a chief of staff.
Mayor Ken Welch addresses allegations of a toxic work environment within his administration after two staff members resigned, including Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens, during a press conference at police headquarters, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
Mayor Ken Welch addresses allegations of a toxic work environment within his administration after two staff members resigned, including Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens, during a press conference at police headquarters, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Sept. 8, 2022|Updated Sept. 8, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Ken Welch on Thursday defended his former deputy mayor, Stephanie Owens, who resigned in the face of an accusation that she maintained a hostile work environment.

He also said he is eliminating the position and replacing it with a chief of staff.

Welch spoke at a news conference held at the St. Petersburg Police Department about the recent departures of Owens and Communications Director Janelle Irwin Taylor, who quit abruptly last week after leveling the hostile workplace claim. She said Owens created a “culture of bullying” while providing little communication or guidance.

“First, let me say that as mayor of this city, the buck stops with me,” Welch said. “I do not believe that there is a pervasive hostile work environment in our city.”

He said Owens directly supervised only nine employees out of a workforce of 3,600.

He said Taylor alleged a hostile work environment related to Owens, her supervisor, in a conversation about proposed changes to the city’s communications organization. He said there were no complaints filed, and he was unaware of a problem until the day before Taylor sent submitted her resignation letter. Taylor’s meeting with the mayor occurred two days before she resigned, according to the letter.

“Ms. Owens disputes that charge,” Welch said. “It’s important to respect Ms. Taylor’s allegation, even without any official complaint. However, it’s also important to respect the statement of former Deputy Mayor Owens, who refutes those allegations.”

Welch said he has directed his staff to develop an assessment of city government that will allow employees to give feedback on their current workplace environment and inform policy going forward.

“If a high-ranking employee didn’t have faith in the current process or an understanding of their options, then perhaps other employees don’t either and we will address that,” he said.

In a statement released Thursday, Taylor said she stood by her allegations. She also said the conversation with Welch that led to her resignation was not about a reorganization, but rather to address her grievances with Owens.

“At this point, it is important that I focus on my next career steps, which I will be announcing in the coming days, and move on from the unfortunate circumstances that prompted my resignation,” Taylor said. “I encourage existing city staff to heed Mayor Welch’s stated goal of providing safe avenues for which to report grievances and hope those channels will provide employees the means to ensure a healthy workplace atmosphere.”

Welch said the new chief of staff will be responsible for intergovernmental relations, strategic communications and policy initiatives while working with the city administrator. More changes are coming both in personnel and in City Hall, he said.

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Welch also spoke about a letter sent by some of Welch’s former campaign staff after last year’s mayoral primary election that detailed similar complaints about Owens. The letter, with signatures removed out of fear of retaliation, was provided to the Tampa Bay Times by a former campaign staffer who said they were one of the people who signed it.

“That letter has been pointed to by some as evidence of an improper management style by Ms. Owens during the campaign,” he said. “It is not.”

Welch said after he received that letter, he personally interviewed all staff, including those whose names did not appear on it. He said the letter he received is not signed but had the names of three campaign staff typed. He said one campaign staffer was not aware their name was on the letter and said there was no hostile work environment, “only issues of communication scheduling, assignments and the like.”

He said overall, the complaints ranged from not being recommended for a bonus, to staffing issues to not being invited to meetings and other complaints.

“I intentionally asked every person if they felt unsafe, harassed, threatened or uncomfortable working on the campaign. All responded no,” Welch said, adding that all but one staffer stayed on for the general election.

“It has no bearing on the issue at hand,” Welch said.

Owens tendered her resignation on Sept. 2, but her last day is Friday. Her weekly calendar had no meetings or appointments listed this week. She previously told the Tampa Bay Times she resigned to “keep any distractions at a minimum.” She did not respond to a phone call and a text requesting comment Thursday.

Welch’s former colleague, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, liked a tweet calling on Welch to fire Owens. Long told the Times on Wednesday that she had heard similar complaints about Owens, saying, “It’s not a good situation.”

“I know a lot of people, and on top of that, I serve on a lot of boards that a member of the City Council also serves on. And I’m close to a lot of folks who are leaders within the city,” she said, adding, “leaders in the city whose interactions (with Owens) have been less than stellar.”

On Thursday, Long said it was good that Welch took responsibility and recognized needed changes going forward.

“I think that’s the beginning of a nice reset,” she said.