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St. Pete City Council gives preliminary OK to scale back sewage reports

St. Petersburg City Council agreed to remove an onerous requirement that consultants working on the city’s sewage problems send all reports to council at the same time they share them with staff members. The vote came during a Committee of the Whole meeting Thursday ahead of City Council’s regular board meeting.

Consultants complained the requirement was too time consuming and was keeping some potential projects from being fully vetted.

“We weren’t able to vet our projects with your staff before we came to you,” said Jacobs Engineering Project Manager Leisha Pica. “We want to be able to communicate directly with your folks [to verify] our understanding of our work with them.”

Instead, Pica explained the team of consultants would be stuck answering a barrage of questions from council members on working documents that weren’t meant to be final drafts, which she said got to be confusing and expensive. The city is paying consultants for their time and they’ve been spending a lot of it dealing with bureaucracy.

“There are better uses for those dollars,” Pica said.

What ends up happening, said St. Pete Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley, is City Council members are looking at scenarios staff and consultants are fairly confident aren’t going to be viable for repairing the city’s crumbling sewage and water infrastructure.

“All of us, from a common sense view, might say ‘we would not do that,’ but we should always look at the do nothing scenario,” Tankersley said in an example. “We still need to demonstrate to you guys [and others] that we truly have looked at all alternatives whether we might think of the top of our heads that they’re feasible or not.”

Tankersley said in some cases, the excessive transparency led to public misinformation as City Council members publicly mentioned drafts documents that equated to little more than spitballing ideas – not necessarily viable policy proposals.

Worse, Tankersley and consultants said, the strict reporting rule was beginning to wreck morale among city public works employees.

“City staff feels as though they cannot be trusted, cannot do their jobs and have lost a feeling of value in the organization,” Tankersley reported during a Powerpoint presentation.

St. Pete Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said that presents problems that are far more widespread than what the city is dealing with in its over-aged sewer system.

“We want to attract and retain the very best technicians and subject matter experts. The very best people have options,” Tomalin said. “If we create this culture that is so tenuous and so filled with stress … it’s unreasonable to expect people who are the very best to want to come here.”

All but one City Council member were content with removing the requirement, which the city’s legal staff said was unprecedented among legislative bodies. Steve Kornell was the hold out. Kornell has been a vocal critic of the city’s handling, particularly Mayor Rick Kriseman’s, of the sewage situation. He religiously reads every sewage report and was implied as the main source of consultant’s grief in answering a slew of questions on reports that weren’t complete.

“I do trust staff, [but] it’s not my job to trust and end it there. It’s my job to vote with a well-informed vote,” Kornell said. “That takes, for someone with my background, a lot of research and a lot of questions.”

Kornell worried that by eliminating the requirement that consultants share reports with council as they do with staff, the public could be left out of the process. He assured staff it wasn’t about trust or a lack thereof, but an issue of transparency for a city that’s frustrated with the onslaught of missteps reported beginning in 2016 when the city began dumping hundreds of millions of gallons of partially treated sewage to avoid overflows.  

City Attorney Jackie Kovalaritch told Kornell all of the documents would still be subject to public records laws. Anyone can request them and the city must comply with those requests. Further, Tankersley agreed to include in the city’s rule change a provision that allowed City Council to opt-in to receiving reports as frequently or infrequently as they wanted. The difference would be that instead of receiving those documents from consultants, they would come from city staff.

The clarification didn’t completely appease Kornell, but he agreed to the city’s request in the committee vote.

Under Thursday’s agreement, City Council will receive monthly updates on sewage plans from staff and consultants.

The vote is not final. The issue still has to come up in a regular council meeting for a first reading and then subsequent final adoption. The council did not schedule the first of those meetings.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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