St. Petersburg City Council members voted Thursday unanimously to call in outside auditors to find out why a 2014 sewer report was never given to the mayor or council.
It’s also likely that the committee will bring in an outside consultant to evaluate the management of the city’s water resources department. The item will be on an upcoming agenda of a council committee. It’s likely the consultant will also be asked to widen the evaluation to include both the sanitation and information technology departments.
The decision came after a couple of weeks of battering for a 151 million gallon sewage spill into Tampa Bay and surrounding waters. Between 35 and 40 residents had sewage back up into their homes.
The wastewater discharge was caused by a sewer system overburdened by rains from a tropical storm that passed offshore. The storm, which later became Hurricane Hermine, dumped heavy rain on Pinellas County.
Mayor Rick Kriseman has blamed the system overflow in part on a worn infrastructure that allowed rainwater to infiltrate pipes and overwhelm the system.
Another component to the problem was the April 2015 closure of the Albert Whitted sewer plant. Wastewater from the plant was diverted to the nearby Southwest plant, which is slated for expansion. Kriseman has said officials’ belief that the Southwest plant could handle the overflow was based on conclusions in consultants’ studies.
A 2014 report, however, said the city would risk an overflow if Albert Whitted were closed before Southwest was expanded. Kriseman and council members said they never received that report. It’s that report that the council wants traced to find out what happened and why members weren’t told of its conclusions.
Kriseman on Wednesday put two midlevel directors on unpaid leave, saying the water resources department “had weak leadership” who had “a degree of disregard for decision makers.”
Kriseman told council members he also intends to hire a public information officer whose sole job would be to keep people informed of happenings in the water resources department. That would include the progress of repairs and improvements to the system and communications about problems in the system whether those arise from storms or other causes.
The council agreed with Kriseman that, once work begins on the expansion of the Southwest plant and other improvements, workers would be on site seven days a week and be able to work double shifts. The goal is to have the system ready for the 2018 storm season to help avoid a future overflow.