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Editorial: Firing a critic of his handling of the sewer crisis is a bad early step in Kriseman's new term

CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times Barely a week after St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman promised to unite the city following a bitter and divisive campaign, his administration has fired an employee who dared to criticize him.
CHERIE DIEZ | Times Barely a week after St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman promised to unite the city following a bitter and divisive campaign, his administration has fired an employee who dared to criticize him.
Published Nov. 16, 2017

Barely a week after St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman promised to unite the city following a bitter and divisive campaign, his administration has fired an employee who dared to criticize him. It seems Kriseman's own mantra of "moving St. Pete forward" had to take a pause for some unfinished business. This kind of overtly political gambit is typical of Kriseman's sharp-elbowed campaign style, but it's not what his supporters voted for, and it's certainly no way to unite a divided city. The mayor and his administration need to do better.

Steven Marshall was a highly paid engineer who started with the city in 2000. During the final week of the campaign, Marshall claimed he had been retaliated against for a memo he wrote in 2016 contradicting Kriseman about the city's ongoing sewage crisis. The engineer's memo said a 2014 consultant's study, which warned of possible sewage spills if the Albert Whitted sewage plant was closed without replacing its capacity, was widely distributed among sewer officials. Kriseman, who never saw the study, suggested it might have been buried. But an independent auditor agreed with the engineer's account.

FIRED: City worker who accused Kriseman administration of bullying gets the ax

Marshall appeared at a news conference alongside former Mayor Rick Baker, Kriseman's opponent, and said that although senior city officials assured him he wouldn't be punished for writing the memo, soon afterward he was stripped of his responsibilities and moved to another department. Kriseman disputed that Marshall's transfer was a punishment. He pointed to a pay raise Marshall had received, saying, "I think there's a lot of employees that if they saw that kind of pay raise, I think they'd have a hard time saying they've been targeted." That explanation never made sense given that Marshall got the raise the year before he sent the memo.

But there's little question now that speaking up cost Marshall his job. City human resources director Chris Guella acknowledged that Marshall's comments at Baker's news conference factored into his dismissal. Yet, incredibly, Guella said this incident should not have a chilling effect on other city employees who may disagree with Kriseman, touting an "open door policy to go speak anywhere." Nonsense. The message to city employees is clear: If you have a problem with this administration, keep it to yourself or pay the price. That open door may just have a flashing red exit sign above it, and don't let it hit your backside on your way out.

Kriseman, who sold himself to voters as a champion of progressive causes while falsely branding Baker as a Donald Trump disciple, is himself acting very much like the bully in the White House. That was not out of the ordinary for Kriseman during the campaign, as he complained about and snubbed several prominent community members who backed Baker. But a mayor must represent the interests of those who didn't support him as well as those who did.

Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby said the mayor didn't know about Marshall's firing ahead of time. That assertion strains credulity, and is problematic if true. In a strong-mayor form of government, responsibility lies with Kriseman; if he really didn't know Marshall was being let go, he should have.

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It's not as though Marshall blew the whistle about a broken streetlight. The sewage crisis was the dominant issue during Kriseman's first term and will be front and center again in his second — witness the spike in sewer rates that got preliminary approval right after the election. St. Petersburg's self-proclaimed environmentalist mayor, who won the backing of the Sierra Club, should welcome the expertise of his staff to ensure the sewage problems are being handled promptly and publicly, even if that includes hard-to-hear criticisms.

In his victory speech on election night, Kriseman sounded like a leader who was ready to get back to work. He was gracious when he mentioned Baker and vowed to "put St. Pete first." But the mayor who promises to combat climate change should start by improving the atmosphere at City Hall.

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