Former St. Pete mayoral candidate sues the city for alleged false arrest, hostile work environment
St. Petersburg, Florida

Ernisa Barnwell is suing the city for $4.3 million.

Former, and short-lived, mayoral candidate Ernisa Barnwell has had a long-standing beef with the city of St. Petersburg that is now continuing in federal court.

Barnwell is suing the city for $4.3 million over allegations she suffered a hostile work environment, false arrest and imprisonment, bodily injury, defamation of character and emotional trauma due to the city’s actions.

Barnwell’s relationship with the city began with good intentions. She founded and ran Barda Hair Braiding College and Hair Braiding Starlets in St. Pete as an after school enrichment program meant to give students a meaningful trade and life skills to further their chances of success, such as substance abuse counseling, accounting, homeownership and business building, as well as help with job placement.

Barnwell’s Hair Braiding Starlets business landed her a contract with the city’s Parks & Recreation department in 2013 and 2014 to provide training to young girls. But her relationship with the city quickly deteriorated when she had a conflict with a parks & rec employee — Lynn Bittner, who is named in the suit against the city.

Barnwell claimed Bittner was rude and made racist comments to her including telling her to remove Hebrew words from her business’ brochure.

Barnwell claims she was “mysteriously arrested” the same day she “made the claim that Lynn Bittner is a racist.”

The arrest led to a chipped tooth, she claims in the lawsuit, which she filed without an attorney. After that, Barnwell claims, Bittner brokered her contract’s termination.

The city of St. Pete does not comment on pending litigation, however in Barnwell’s termination letter from the city, one of the reasons her contract was terminated was she failed to get any girls enrolled in her program during the summer of 2014.

It’s not the first time Barnwell has taken action against the city. She filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission discrimination complaint in 2015 that was later dismissed after the commission found no evidence of illegality.

She also sued the city in 2017 after she was disqualified from the ballot to run against incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman in that year’s election. Barnwell’s $250 check to qualify for the race bounced, prompting City Clerk Chan Srinivasa to disqualify her from the election. Barnwell lost that case.

Barnwell’s name appeared on the primary ballot that August, but a note accompanied it informing voters that any votes cast for her would not be counted.

She claimed the city owed her money and that should cover the qualifying fee, but a judge dismissed her complaint.

The first half of that election was an interesting one, with Barnell sharing the political outsider lane with several other fringe candidates. One of those, perennial candidate Paul Congemi, made national headlines when he told African American supporters of another candidate to “go back to Africa.”

Another candidate, Anthony Cates III, ran on a platform claiming, without evidence, that the city’s water supply was tainted, and he told voters he would be Mayor for life and hand leadership down to his children.

Jesse Nevel, a young candidate running with the backing of the controversial Uhuru group, sometimes created disruptions at candidate forums with supporters shouting down conversations from the audience.

The noise did little to alter the election’s trajectory with Kriseman and his Republican opponent, former Mayor Rick Baker, raising record funds in the race. Kriseman ultimately won reelection and the drama of three years ago has been spoken of little since.

That is, until now.

Staff Reports


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