Did St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch snub a journalism conference with prominent national business reporters because the moderator refused to accept a scripted list of questions?
The editor of a local business journal says yes; Welch, through a spokeswoman, says no and calls it “a misunderstanding.”
Regardless who’s right, the kerfuffle illustrates the sensitivity of the negotiations between the Tampa Bay Rays development group and the city over remaking the Tropicana site, or Historic Gas Plant District.
Welch had planned to speak to a recent meeting of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers hosted by the Poynter Institute and the Tampa Bay Business Journal, focusing on the Tropicana redevelopment.
The Institute owns the Tampa Bay Times.
Welch is circumspect about the ticklish negotiations with the Rays.
But he’s eager to talk about the community involvement in the project and the city’s goal to redress the obliteration of the former, mostly Black, Gas Plant neighborhood to build the Trop. The session was titled, “Back in Balance: How Tampa Bay’s stadium redevelopment seeks to right wrongs of the past.”
Reporter Ashley Kritzer of the Business Journal was to moderate.
In planning the event, Welch’s office proposed four “suggested questions” for Kritzer to ask Welch, open-ended softballs on his favored subjects, along with showing a city-made video.
In emails, Kritzer responded that she didn’t expect Welch to “break news” on the negotiations but added, “I also wasn’t planning for this to be a commercial for the Welch administration … We will keep these questions in mind but we aren’t going to stick to a script provided by the city.”
Welch then pulled out of the event shortly before it was to take place.
In an editor’s note published afterward, Business Journal editor Alexis Muellner criticized Welch for skipping “an opportunity to address some of the nation’s top business and financial journalists,” leaving event planners in a tight spot, and said it suggests lack of transparency.
No one, he wrote, expected Welch to detail terms of the negotiations, but the mayor “should be able to answer any question any reporter throws his way — especially if it pertains to one of the most important redevelopment projects in the city’s history.”
Welch spokeswoman Erica Riggins begged to differ. She said the questions were suggested, not demanded, and that collaboration on questions at such events is common, including for other panels during the conference.
She said Welch pulled out because, “There were things we couldn’t talk about because of the active negotiations, to protect taxpayers. We didn’t think it would be productive to just have repeated no-comments.”
She said the administration “respects the hard-working journalists” of the Journal, but that Muellner “got this one wrong.”
Muellner stood by his story with no further comment.