St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman on Thursday wisely stopped the hiring of a state environmental official who was on a team investigating the city's ongoing sewer problems. City officials made a critical error in judgment by recruiting the official in the middle of the investigation, then compounded the mess by failing to acknowledge the obvious conflict of interest and how it unfolded. Kriseman correctly intervened, but now his administration has been bruised again by bad judgment and lack of candor.
St. Petersburg's sewer system has been overwhelmed in major rainstorms, resulting in 200 million gallons of sewage being released over two years. Gov. Rick Scott called for the state Department of Environmental Protection on Sept. 21 to look into St. Petersburg's sewer problems. Michele Duggan, a veteran state employee, was part of the state's team investigating. On Oct. 14, Claude Tankersley, the city's Public Works administrator, invited Duggan to meet to discuss job openings in his department. He told her to watch the city website for a job posting for environmental compliance manager, a position that pays between $71,373 and $111,304. Duggan applied on Nov. 7, formally interviewed Nov. 30 and on Dec. 2 received a congratulatory email saying she was the "selected candidate."
The time line illustrates the impropriety of Duggan, while assigned with critically assessing the city's sewer troubles, entering into discussions about working for the city. Yet Kriseman's office initially saw no problem with it. One statement said the mayor merely wants to hire the best people. Another said Duggan should not be subjected to "undue scrutiny" if she is otherwise qualified. But as the Times' Charlie Frago reported Thursday, the spin did not match the sequence of events revealed by city emails.
This is not really about Duggan or her qualifications. It is about a failure to recognize a conflict of interest. The city's top sewer official tried to lure one of the state's investigators to a higher paying job. She was alerted about the position before it was publicly posted. Those interactions took place while the investigation was ongoing. And yet the response from City Hall was to keep denying anything was amiss. "There is no there there," new public works spokesman Bill Logan insisted. But weak spin — at a cost of $90,000 a year in public money for Logan's salary — can't make up for poor decisions and a lack of transparency. Kriseman came to see that, though he was late.
The explanation provided Thursday by his spokesman, Ben Kirby, acknowledges everything that's wrong with this sideshow. The mayor "does not like the way it looks, he does not like that Ms. Duggan applied for the position, he does not like that she was invited to apply or entertained for the position. He does not like that she was named the front-runner for it. He has asked Claude to pull the plug and find someone else to do the job. She may have been the most qualified, but she is not the best fit. Her hire would not be in keeping with his desire to build trust around this issue."
That is all correct. What would have been better? Waiting until the state investigation was completed before reaching out to Duggan about a job. Then the announcement of her hire would have read that the city is bringing on someone with a critical eye who pinpointed what's wrong and can help fix it. That would have kept with Kriseman's stated goal of hiring "the best and brightest" while also helping to restore the public's trust.
That point is moot now, and the Kriseman administration has committed another unforced error. The crisis that isn't going away is the state of the sewer system. For the mayor, it was best to acknowledge the hiring mistake, promptly correct it and refocus on the bigger mission.