Mayor Rick Kriseman announced Wednesday that he and Muslim leaders from throughout Tampa Bay will host St. Petersburg’s first Iftar dinner welcoming residents of all faiths to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The event will be held June 14 at St. Petersburg’s historic Coliseum.
“Now more than ever, we must be expressive in our love and respect for people of all faiths,” Kriseman said. “I am excited to bring the community together to honor our Muslim brothers and sisters.”
Abdul Karim Ali, the president of the Tampa Bay Area Muslim Association, said: “We know that breaking bread together helps a community work together for a common cause, and so we thank Mayor Kriseman and his team for their leadership in ensuring that the sun shines bright on all residents and faiths in St. Petersburg.”
Kriseman made his announcement on the same day that President Donald Trump signed an executive order that moved the U.S. closer to building a wall along the Mexican border. The executive order also seeks to beef up border patrols, increase the deportations of illegal immigrants and crack down on sanctuary cities by stripping them of federal grant money. Sanctuary cities are those that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.
St. Petersburg is continuing to test waterways after nanoplankton and red tide was found in samples collected Thursday in areas where a fish kill and dead pelicans were found.
City officials said a water sample collected by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff at Riviera Lake #1, the site of an initial cold weather inversion-related fish kill last week which led to discoveries of sick or dead brown pelicans, has turned up bloom concentrations of nanoplankton. Meanwhile, a water sample collected at Bayou Grande, where a dead white pelican was found, showed background concentrations of Karenia Brevis, or red tide.
Results of those tests, as well as necropsies on the dead pelicans, should be ready by next week, the city said. Research teams from the city, state and an independent study group will continue to monitor the waters for any unusual activity during the weekend. State-sponsored and independent scientists also continue to examine the water quality.
Initial test results, compared with a recent baseline series of samples provided by the city of St. Petersburg, showed water was within recreational use parameters. Despite increased water testing in the area, recent events have not caused a decrease in visitors to Coffee Pot Park. Activity by residents on social media indicates that there is more fish and wildlife activity in the waters over the past week.
The city’s waterways became the focus of concern this past couple of weeks after the fish kill and pelicans were found dead. Officials initially posted the areas as off-limits to recreational users but removed the signs Thursday after initial test results, when compared with a recent baseline series of samples provided by the city, showed water was within recreational use limits.
After recent tests on water in and around Coffee Pot Bayou came back normal, crews from St. Petersburg’s public works department have removed the warning signs from around the shoreline.
The warning signs had been placed around Coffee Pot Bayou as tests were being conducted following the discovery of numerous sick and dying brown pelicans.
“The water quality is not in question in Coffee Pot Bayou,” said John Palenchar, interim water resources director. “And we are working with all concerned to try and find out what made the birds sick.”
A total of 17 pelicans were sent to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Wildlife Lab in Gainesville for necropsy. Samples taken during necropsy will go to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Georgia for further testing. FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg will receive additional samples for testing for algal toxins.
Busch Gardens is sending blood, fecal, and tissue samples to the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute for testing for algal toxins.
Toxin analysis will help determine if the pelican deaths are is potentially related to red tide. Results are expected to be available two to three days after the labs receive samples. Results from samples submitted to SCWDS will take longer, possibly weeks.
Biological testing experts from Arcadis, a consultant the city hired, are taking further samples today for independent testing.
“There is no preconceived notion as to what may be going on out here,” said Scott Lehman, Arcadis senior asset consultant. “Our intent is to be that third party review to see if we find anything independent of what the city is finding.”
So far, Palenchar said, the city has found that the water quality is “well within the parameters for recreational usage.”
The test results from the independent consultant Arcadis will likely be ready by early next week.
State Rep. Kathleen Peters filed two bills Wednesday aimed at helping pay for sewer improvements in St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach.
Peters, a Republican from Treasure Island, asked for $5.5 million in state funding.
Of that, $3 million in state funding would be earmarked for St. Petersburg to smoke test sewer pipes for leaks, install and seal manholes, among other work. The remaining $2.5 million would go to St. Pete Beach for the engineering, construction and permitting of the city’s sanitary sewer system.
Sewer systems in South Pinellas were the focus of much news last year after St. Petersburg and other cities either dumped or had overflows of raw and partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay, Clam Bayou and other waterways. The problems were blamed in part on aging infrastructure that allowed rain- and groundwater to seep into the systems and overburden them.
Heavy rains during two tropical storms overloaded the systems. And, in St. Pete Beach’s case, the system was already at capacity in good weather.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council pledged to spend millions to fix and upgrade the system. Work began this month in the Bahama Shores and Coquina Key neighborhoods.
The $3.2 million project is part of Kriseman‘s infrastructure plan, The work consists of lining the pipes, which is supposed to extend the life of sanitary sewer mains and prevent groundwater infiltration from entering the city’s sewage collection system. Depending on the weather, the project is expected to be completed by September.
Initial test results from water samples taken from waters in and around Coffee Pot Bayou and Riviera Bay have shown no abnormalities, but testing of sick and dead pelicans will continue, St. Petersburg officials said.
“From all we’ve seen, the water there is in overall good shape,” said Interim Water Resources Director John Palenchar. “But we will continue testing, and so the signs will stay up for awhile.”
The city has collected 15 dead or dying pelicans since Jan. 12. City workers also responded to a fish kill earlier this month in Riviera Bay.
This week, warnings for recreational water users about the dead pelicans (first seen at the Riviera Bay retention pond, then over the past weekend in and around Coffee Pot Bayou) were posted along the shoreline from North Shore Park through Coffee Pot Bayou. The signs informed residents about the enhanced and cooperative testing being spearheaded by the city of St. Petersburg and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission after sick and dead pelicans were found in the area.
The city has also brought in an independent biologist to further study what’s causing the birds to be sick.
Initial water samples from the retention pond where the sick birds were first encountered showed low levels of dissolved oxygen. Samples from nearby Riviera Bay and waters further south into Coffee Pot Bayou had normal levels of oxygen.
In addition, the other tested elements fell within normal parameters for recreational waterways, except for a lone site near the Coffee Pot Bayou boat ramp showing poor water quality.
“The good news is that the water is in good shape,” Palenchar said. “We are continuing with follow-up sampling and data sharing with FWC and our environmental consultant. … We will continue to work with the FWCC and our independent partners to pinpoint the problem.”
Palenchar added that the incident is in no way related to last summer’s heavy rains and the subsequent discharge of potentially treated sewage water.
A reminder from the FWC: Residents who see sick or dead birds or other wildlife are encouraged to make an online bird mortality report or to call FWC’s Fish Kill Hotline at 1-800-636-0511.
In an effort to expedite and enhance current testing and investigation into a troubling discovery of sick birds near local waterways, the city of St. Petersburg is calling in an independent ecologist to assist.
Scientists with Arcadis U.S., based in Melbourne, Florida, have joined with St. Petersburg Water Resources and investigative crews from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) to gather clues into what is causing the Pelicans’ sickness.
“We want to have experts evaluating this,” said John Palenchar, interim Water Resources Director, “Independently tasked to find out — as soon as possible — what’s causing this.”
St. Petersburg has been dealing with this situation since last week, when a fish-kill was reported on January 12, at a stormwater retention pond in the Riviera Bay area.
“RBLake #1” is a freshwater stormwater pond with many exotic tilapia, which are susceptible to low temperature and Dissolved Oxygen (DO) issues. Adequate dissolved oxygen is necessary for good water quality, as well as a necessary element to all forms of life. Natural stream purification processes require adequate oxygen levels in order to provide for aerobic life forms. As dissolved oxygen levels in water drop below 5.0 mg/l, aquatic life is put under stress. The lower the concentration, the greater the stress. Oxygen levels that remain below 1-2 mg/l for a few hours can result in large fish kills.
Preliminary data from that pond showed readings at approximately 0.32 mg/l, with 4,900 pounds of fish removed from Riviera Bay Lake.
FWCC have taken water and algae samples to test for quality and is also testing the birds that died to determine cause of death.
The second location is Coffee Pot Bayou, about 3 miles south of Riviera Bay. Scientists are investigating the probability that the affected birds initially fed on fish at RB Lake#1 and flew to Coffee Pot Bayou, which is near a substantial pelican habitat.
All testing — by the FWCC, City of St. Petersburg, and now Arcadis — will be coordinated and used to formulate a plan to keep the birds safe, as well as to alert residents and recreational water users to any potential problems. Further details and results will be released when they become available.
After opening to much fanfare three years ago, Wal-Mart is shuttering its Neighborhood Market in the Midtown section of St. Petersburg.
First reported by the Tampa Bay Business Journal, the retail giant announced it will close the store at 1794 22nd St. S March 3; its pharmacy will close Feb. 1.
The store was formerly a Sweetbay Supermarket.
“After a careful and thoughtful review process, we have made the difficult decision to close our Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market on 22nd Street South in St. Petersburg,” a Wal-Mart representatives said in a statement. “We have been, and will continue to be, supportive of our local store leadership and associates, and this decision is in no way a reflection of their hard work and customer service over the last three years. This decision is based on a number of factors, including financial performance and strategic alignment with long-term plans.”
After Sweetbay decided to close all its Florida stores, former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster had pressured the company to keep the nearly 40,000-square-foot location open, which was owned by the city.
“We are incredibly disappointed by Wal-Mart’s decision to close this particular store. In light of the city’s pursuit of Tangerine Plaza and our ability to incentivize Wal-Mart’s remaining, we are hopeful that they will revisit this decision,” current Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a statement.
“However, anticipating their closure, we will work closely with them to ensure their employees are placed at other Wal-Mart locations,” Kriseman added.
“While I join in the frustration many of our residents will feel, this may be an opportunity to secure a tenant that can successfully self-perpetuate or create an amenity that better serves the wants and needs of the surrounding community.”
The Neighborhood Market was a key business in the Tangerine shopping plaza, which had been expected to bring economic vitality to a traditionally underserved community of the city.
The announcement came toward the end of St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s state of the city address Saturday: The next ordinance Kriseman plans to introduce is one deregulating the vehicle-for-hire industry.
Kriseman did not provide many details except to say it would include incentives for taxi companies and ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft to comply with St. Petersburg’s system.
Let the market decide what’s best, Kriseman said, adding that, if his plan succeeds then St. Petersburg would be a leader in finding a way to resolve the contentious relationship between traditional cabs and ride-sharing companies.
“If it doesn’t work, that’s OK, too,” Kriseman said.
In the past year, St. Petersburg has sought to regulate companies like Uber and Lyft. The city wants the companies to pay the $65 per vehicle tax that cab companies pay. But Uber has resisted, saying that’s unfair because its drivers are not employees and are merely part-timers making a bit of extra money. Uber has suggested paying $5,000 per year.
For the most part, Kriseman’s state of the city address, his third since taking office, was upbeat and gave him a chance to highlight the accomplishments of his administration. Among those, he said, were having the city on a better financial footing, progress on rebuilding the Pier, a 105 percent increase in new business registrations and an unemployment rate that’s lower than the state or national level.
Kriseman also looked to the future, saying the city’s infrastructure needed repair — especially the sewer system. He noted that the city has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to revamp the system. Kriseman added that he is also revamping the city’s stormwater plan, which was last done 22 years ago.
“How a coastal city can have a 22-year storm plan is beyond me,” Kriseman said. “We have much work ahead, but we are up to the task.”
Charlie Crist is calling on President Barack Obama to intervene on behalf of one of his constituents, a St. Petersburg man imprisoned for 23 years for a crime a growing number of people believe he did not commit.
On Friday, the freshman St. Petersburg Democrat sent a letter to the White House telling the story of Michael Morgan, who has been unjustly serving three life sentences for crimes that many — including reporters, a former Pinellas County Commissioner and even a juror who voted to convict — now say he is innocent.
More than two decades ago, Morgan, 18 years old at the time, was in St. Petersburg riding his bicycle home from school. After encountering a man with a large dog, who began yelling and chasing him, Morgan went to a neighbor’s house and called his mother, Vel Thompson, to help.
When Thompson arrived a few minutes later, police had Morgan in handcuffs.
That day, officers were looking for a black male suspected of the assault and attempted rape of Felicia Fuller 12 days earlier. Fuller’s father, Earnest Fuller, was an officer for the St. Petersburg Police Department.
Felicia Fuller had been shot in the buttocks during what was described as a “drug deal gone wrong.” Cocaine was found at the scene. Fuller claimed that two African-American men assaulted her: one with a gold tooth and another who was clean-shaven.
Morgan had an alibi for Fuller’s attack — he was at a school dance with friends, something corroborated by multiple witnesses. He also did not fit the description of either man, having a full mustache and no gold tooth. Nevertheless, Morgan was arrested.
After going to trial three times, Morgan was ultimately convicted and sentenced to three life sentences and has been in prison for the past 23 years. Three years ago, supporters created a Change.org petition to request the Florida Clemency Board to consider his clemency request. The petition, which now has 337 signers, asks the Governor to waive the rule preventing the board from hearing Morgan’s request because of his life sentences.
In January 2015, WTSP’s Mike Deeson highlighted Morgan’s case in a nine-minute video summarizing the problems with both the case and his conviction, which came about without DNA or other physical evidence. The video, which is available on YouTube, also shows Morgan meeting with former Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche in the effort to gain clemency.
In Crist’s letter, he invoked Obama’s campaign for criminal justice reform, where the president granted clemency to more than 1,300 people over his two terms in office.
“I applaud your valiant efforts to reform our nation’s criminal justice system; ending juvenile solitary confinement, banning the box for federal employees, and reducing the use of federal private prisons,” Crist writes. “In that same vein, your support for people serving unjust or excessive sentences has brought justice and hope to thousands of nonviolent offenders and their families.”
Crist then related his time as Florida Governor, during which he worked to streamline the state’s clemency process.
However, Obama cannot just grant Morgan a pardon, since presidential commutation powers are restricted only to federal crimes. Any change in Morgan’s sentencing lies in the hands of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who would need the agreement from two cabinet members who are also statewide elected officials.
“I only wish Michael Morgan’s case fell within federal jurisdiction,” Crist writes. “Our Chief Executive in Florida has the power to grant clemency, but to date has not chosen to take action on this case.”
Now, Crist is asking for Obama to help — in his few days left as president — to right this injustice.
“Mr. President, your kind attention and willingness to lend your voice to this grave injustice would be incredibly helpful,” Crist writes. “Thank you again for all that you have done to improve our criminal justice system and restore the lives of the unjustly accused. It is my hope that your efforts lead to freedom for Americans, like Michael Morgan, who sit in prison today for crimes they clearly did not commit.”
St. Petersburg has scheduled a second informational meeting to discuss proposed improvements to the Southwest Water Reclamation Facility and the 31st Street Sports Complex.
The meetings are designed to inform residents about a proposal to drill wells at both facilities to increase the storage capacity for reclaimed water. An increased storage capacity will help handle the increase in water during storms and help prevent overflows. Last year, the city dumped thousands of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay because the system was unable to handle the amount of water that two tropical storms dropped on the county.
Since then, the city has created a multimillion plan to repair its aging sewer infrastructure to prevent rain- and groundwaters from getting into the system. The plan also calls for other improvements such as the construction of injection wells at Southwest and 31st Street. Each site is slated to have two 1,100-foot-deep injection wells, for a total of four new wells. The four wells ill be in addition to injection wells already in place at the Southwest plan, which pumps treated reclaimed water deep into confined salt aquifers.
The city held one informational meeting last year. Like the last, this second meeting, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Lake Vista Center, 1401 62nd Ave. S, is meant to explain the projects to residents, particularly those who will be affected by the construction. But St. Petersburg officials say they also want to hear residents’ ideas and suggestions concerning the proposal.