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Editorial: Openness is vital to clean up sewer mess

As new problems surface with St. Petersburg’s sewer system, City Council Chairwoman Amy Foster is setting the right tone of openness and transparency.
As new problems surface with St. Petersburg’s sewer system, City Council Chairwoman Amy Foster is setting the right tone of openness and transparency.
Published Oct. 5, 2016

As new problems surface with St. Petersburg's sewer system, City Council Chairwoman Amy Foster is setting the right tone of openness and transparency. This week, Foster discovered irregularities in how the public works department awards contracts — sidestepping parts of the regular process in ways that can leave the public in the dark. Too many turns in the city's ongoing sewer saga have been veiled in secrecy. Foster made the right move by alerting fellow council members and bringing the issue into the light.

Foster had asked city staff for four years of records related to sewer projects and studies in an effort to understand how a 2014 consultant's memo about the closing of the Albert Whitted sewage treatment plant had gotten lost. The study is pertinent now because it warned that closing the plant before another was expanded would leave the system vulnerable to overflows. That's exactly what has happened. Since August 2015, the city has discharged nearly 200 million gallons of untreated or partly treated sewage into Tampa Bay and other waterways. City Council members and Mayor Rick Kriseman say they never saw the memo.

But Foster's records request turned up no minutes or notes about how contracts were awarded. This is troubling because it means that, for years, big-dollar projects were not evaluated under the normal, open process. Foster correctly points out that's not a good way for the city to do business. It leaves plenty of room for favoritism and manipulation of the rogue evaluation process to benefit favored contractors. It also can keep the public from fully understanding whether tax money is being spent wisely on major projects.

Foster and council member Darden Rice are among the council members who made a smart call in declining invitations from officials with Brown and Caldwell, the consulting firm behind the 2014 study, to meet one-on-one in private. Kriseman and other city officials have made the situation harder for themselves by withholding information about the scale of the sewage discharges or making bold declarations that turned out to be wrong. With the public's trust seriously eroded, closed-door meetings are not a wise course. "Anything that could be discussed in a private meeting," Foster said, "should be able to be discussed in a public meeting." The firm was invited to today's meeting to address the entire City Council in the sunshine, which is exactly where the conversation should take place.

The deeper the examination goes of St. Petersburg's sewer crisis, the smellier it gets. Kriseman's office says he is working to address the breakdown that allowed some off-the-books evaluation of contract bids and to document past meetings where minutes were not taken. Foster vows to keep the pressure on until all city departments are following the same process. Those are encouraging responses to this episode, which has reinforced the need to continue with an open examination of the sewer system's deficiencies. Being transparent is the only way to earn back public trust in St. Petersburg City Hall that has been badly eroded.