ST. PETERSBURG — For a Florida mayor, being in the path of a hurricane is a dreaded but expected rite of passage.
There’s a drill: Mayors declare a state of emergency and activate an operations center, becoming “incident commanders.” It’s an opportunity to take charge and be in the national spotlight. If all goes well, like it generally did when St. Petersburg was spared last month, it’s a tangible moment that can demonstrate leadership and management under tense circumstances.
Mayor Ken Welch spent the night of Sept. 28, when conditions from Hurricane Ian were at their worst, at his home while his interim chief of staff, city administrator, communications team and other city officials left their families to spend the night at the new emergency operations center at the St. Petersburg Police Department.
“It was a matter of do I sleep upstairs or do I get a chance to go and check on the family since the storm has changed direction,” he said. “There was no issue at that point, and I don’t think there’s an issue now.”
That remote approach is part of a larger pattern with Welch. The Tampa Bay Times reviewed the number of times Welch swiped into City Hall with his key card from his inauguration Jan. 6 to Sept. 7. Excluding duplicates, when Welch entered more than once in a single day, Welch swiped in 60 times.
Counting workdays but excluding holidays, that’s an attendance rate of 34.3%. Had Welch swiped into City Hall every workday since his inauguration, his last time at City Hall would have been March 31.
Welch’s former deputy mayor, Stephanie Owens, who resigned following accusations that she created a toxic work environment, which she denied, swiped in 73 times during that time — an attendance rate of 41.7%.
City officials initially declined to provide the key-swipe information for the mayor, saying it was captured on the city’s security system, which they said is exempt from public record. After negotiations with a lawyer from the Times, the city agreed to provide the information.
The Times also requests Welch’s calendar weekly. A recurring Monday meeting with the city development administrator is held over Zoom. So are Tuesday meetings with his cabinet, who are expected to work in-person. Many other meetings on Welch’s calendar are held virtually or over the phone.
In an interview last week, Welch said those virtual meetings save him and others the time of driving and parking.
“If folks are expecting me to be tethered to my office and City Hall 24/7, that’s not the way that I approach it,” he said. “I’m here when I need to be. We meet virtually, when that makes sense. And I’m out in the community.”
“I just want to be clear that the taxpayers are getting their money’s worth,” Welch added. “Every waking moment I’m working for this city.”
Welch says his key swipes and calendars only tell parts of his story, and that he stays up every night until 9 or 10 p.m. “doing his homework.”
“Well you don’t see everything — when I’ve got study time, when I’m prepping talking points, researching an issue,” he said. “But look, the people put their faith in me that I would do this job the same way I’ve done public service for 20 years. And believe me, they’re getting their money’s worth.”
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The City Council chairperson, Gina Driscoll, usually has a standing 30-minute phone call with Welch every month to catch up. Being a City Council member is a part-time job. They are paid less than a quarter of Welch’s $227,910 annual salary.
Driscoll says she’s usually at City Hall three days a week. “More often than not,” she said, Welch isn’t there.
“I’m not sure how you can effectively run a city of our size without being present in the day-to-day operations of the city,” she said.
As for Welch not staying the night at the emergency operations center, Driscoll said, “We’re fortunate that we have really strong members of the administration who showed the dedication to keep their hands on the steering wheel during a challenging and frightening time for our city.”
Welch said his approach of being out in the community is how he’s most effective.
“I’m not responsive to someone’s idea of when I shouldn’t be in a certain place. They weren’t elected to run a city government. I was. I know how to do this,” he said. “I’m not sitting in a throne in City Hall. I’m out in the community working with my team.”
For Hurricane Ian, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor spent the night at the city’s emergency operations center at the GTE Financial Credit Union headquarters. During Hurricane Irma in 2017, former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman remembers his blow-up mattress deflating at the city’s former emergency operations center at the water resources center.
In an interview with the Times, Kriseman recalled trading snacks with his staff and playing cards with water resources workers until the early morning hours.
“It gives you an opportunity to get to know the people that you work with,” he said. “It’s more tense because you’re concerned about your community and you’re there for long extended periods of time with these people.”
Another reason: Being at the emergency operations center means always having power and being able to stay in touch with your top staff.
“It’s critical that the folks who are there that you have to rely upon to advise you and implement your directives,” Kriseman said. “They’re there because that way you have direct communication with them and they can go ahead and do what needs to be done, to proactively prepare or after the fact respond.”
Welch has better accommodations than Kriseman did for Irma. The three-year-old emergency operations center at the new St. Petersburg Police headquarters is built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, and the mayor has his own office and private conference rooms.
Welch said he went home the night of Hurricane Ian because his 12-hour shift was over and the storm’s course veered away from St. Petersburg. He said the decision to leave the emergency operations center was “not a unilateral one,” and he received the OK from the emergency manager and St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway.
On the city’s organizational chart, Holloway, like every other city employee, reports to Welch.
Asked about showing solidarity by staying with city employees who could not go home to their families during the storm, Welch said, “That was not a concern that anyone had. We were relieved that the storm was less of a threat to us at that point.”
For appearances on national television as mayor, Welch spoke with CNN and MSNBC from his home. He tweeted a photo of taking President Joe Biden’s phone call ahead of the hurricane from his home office.
On the morning of Thursday, Sept. 28, the day after Hurricane Ian made landfall, Welch was not at the emergency operations center by 6 a.m., which is when staff staying at the center were required to report. He instead did a 7 a.m. interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe from his home. He arrived at the emergency operations center after that with Fray’s donuts for the team.
“I wasn’t worried about optics,” Welch said. “I wanted to get the information out.”