Saying that some issues are too important to be politicized and some crisis are too great to be ignored, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman fired back Thursday at Rick Baker, after the former mayor touted his environmental credentials in a new television ad.
“I’ve been watching the ad that Rick Baker has been airing and, quite frankly, it smells worse than actual sewage,” Kriseman said at the beginning of a press conference staged at the Suncoast Sierra Club’s headquarters in downtown St. Pete.
Though the theme of his re-election campaign against Baker has been about looking forward and not back, Kriseman did exactly that by calling out Baker for what he said was the hypocrisy of blasting Kriseman for the sewage problems that have plagued the city.
Baker has criticized Kriseman for closing the Albert Whitted treatment plant in 2015, but Kriseman has maintained that decision was made well before he took office. In fact, the decision to close Albert Whitted came in 2011 when then-Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council decided to close the facility. After the sewage discharge problem surfaced last year, there have been calls by other Council members to have that treatment plant reopened.
Kriseman has not agreed to do that.
Kriseman presented a map from 2002 which laid out a timeline going back to Baker’s first year as mayor and said that Baker commissioned a study in 2002 to close the Albert Whitted airport and the adjoining sewage plant. Kriseman said Baker did that while the city was under a consent order from the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection to upgrade the sewer system, “yet he’s talking about tearing down the plant to build high-priced condos or town homes.”
Kriseman then quoted a passage out of Baker memoir, “The Seamless City,” where the former mayor writes, “discharging wastewater into Tampa Bay is a better option, than allowing to backup into homes and businesses.”
“He clearly wrote this … before he decided to run for a third term as mayor … before he decided to criticize me for doing exactly he said in his book what he would do,” Kriseman quipped.
Kriseman acknowledged during the press conference that he made mistakes last year handling the sewage crisis, but said his $304 million plan to repair the city’s infrastructure will vastly improve the sewage problems in the future. When asked specifically what he could have done better, Kriseman said that poor communications was his greatest sin. Specifically he said that the city missed an opportunity with social media.
(Baker and others have criticized the Kriseman administration for spending $92,000 to hire social media “influencers”).
“Even if you don’t necessarily think it’s an issue, you’re better off putting it out there so the public knows,” Kriseman said.
But Kriseman said the city can’t stop there, and criticized Baker for failing to undergo a similar plan after the city satisfied the state’s consent order on the sewer issues ended early in his tenure.
There was never a sewer master plan that was ever done,” Kriseman said, adding that Baker took office after a “significant spill” had taken place in 1999, back in the David Fischer era (Baker was elected in the spring of 2001).
When asked if he’s concerned that the sewage issue could hurt him against Baker in their race, Kriseman said confidently that he believes the public is with him now that he has a plan moving forward.
Team Baker reacted with fury to Kriseman’s press conference.
Baker said that his administration spent more than $160 million in overall water and sewer improvements, “including millions to specifically improve Albert Whitted.”
“Bottom line, this spill was the result of Rick Kriseman’s mismanagement,” Baker added about the discharges resulting from Hurricane Hermine last summer.
“The Kriseman campaign has crossed the line from desperate to pathetic,” charged Nick Hansen, Baker’s campaign manager.
Hansen criticized Kriseman for using a map in his press conference that he said was created before Baker considered and rejected closing Albert Whitted “because it was a bad idea.”
The event was held at the Sierra Club’s headquarters on Central Avenue. The Club endorsed Kriseman in this election, but David Harbeitner, chairman of the Suncoast Sierra Club’s political director, insists that the endorsement of a mayor who suffered through a sewage crisis does not mean that that they are a partisan group.
“It all comes to greenwash vs. what we see as facts,” Harbeitner said of the Kriseman endorsement, saying that while Baker did some good things for the environment as mayor, “they pale in comparison to what Mayor Kriseman’s been able to do.”
He also said that Baker did the minimum in fixing the sewer system after the consent degree. “He didn’t take the actions to take that forward,” he said, praising the current council and mayor’s plan.