You'd think that the mayor who brought curbside recycling, a bike share, a cross-bay ferry, a plan to move the city to 100 percent renewable energy and a plan to overhaul an aging sewer system to the city would not have to go on the defensive for his environmental record.
Buuuuuut, this is 2017.
So, on Thursday, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman — a progressive Democrat facing an aggressive reelection challenge from former Mayor Rick Baker, a conservative Republican with something of a record on the environment — gave a press conference countering Baker's well-funded media blitz attempting to pin the city's sewer system woes on Kriseman. (Note: it's technically a nonpartisan race, but who are we kidding? Again, it's 2017. Dem-led cities like St. Pete are the last line of defense against Republicans who are trying to control every level of government in states like Florida, where they have the money to fund campaigns to convince you it's for the best.)
Kriseman spoke at the Suncoast Sierra Club's Grand Central District headquarters Thursday afternoon about his environmental cred — which runs deep — and how a few missteps on the sewage crisis on the part of his administration shouldn't give Baker the justification to fly the eco-banner.
Kriseman called Baker out for his "hypocrisy" on the sewage issue — namely, that in his 2011 book Seamless City, Baker implied he would have chosen to release sewage into the bay over letting it overflow into people's homes just as Kriseman had to do.
"I've been watching the ad that Rick Baker is airing and, quite frankly, it smells worse than actual sewage," Kriseman said. "I hate looking back, but accountability is important. And as Rick Baker himself said in an op-ed in 2016, quote, we can only create a successful path forward if we are honest about how we got here."
Indeed, Baker's book features a passage that reads:
By the mid 1990s our city’s sanitary sewer pipes had deteriorated to the point that in the rainy seasons the rise in the water table would result in storm water filling up the sanitary sewer pipes through the leaky structures, and placing an increased demand on the treatment plants. Finally, one day heavy rains overloaded the system, and large quantities of untreated sewage were discharged into bay waters, a result known as a “sanitary sewer overflow.” The city’s alternative to discharging into the bay would have been to allow the untreated sewage to back up in the homes and businesses of the city – not a good option.
The passage that follows outlines upgrades to the city's wastewater infrastructure that took place as a result of a Florida Department of Environmental Protection-issued consent order (which resulted from a spill that took place prior to Baker being in office).
Of course, Baker served during a drought period, and during his tenure, there were certainly sewage overflows and dumps, city records show.
Kriseman said Baker's upgrades to the system basically met the state's bare-minimum requirements, but weren't intended to address long-term issues, including sea-level rise due to climate change, the latter of which Baker has yet to acknowledge humans have at least in part caused or exacerbated.
The current mayor acknowledged that his administration has learned from its mistakes (i.e., allegedly not telling anybody the city was dumping sewage into nearby waterways despite health risks).
"We could have done a better job and we will do a better job," Kriseman said of his administration's handling of the sewage crisis over three periods of heavy rain in 2015 and 2016. "Now all we can do is move forward with an ambitious plan that, as swiftly as possible, will deal with our issue and prepare for more negative impacts of climate change, something that Rick Baker doesn't talk about or believe in, and then to tout his environmental record when he even opposed curbside recycling, which is kind of a baseline thing for a city to do. He said it would be bad for the environment.”
Still, Baker and others pin the city's sewage releases on the closure of the wastewater treatment plant near Albert Whitted Airport. That plant closed after more than a decade of discussions over its potential shuttering, discussions that started during Baker's administration as the city considered closing the airport and sewage plant to make way for a new waterfront park and possible mixed-use development (which voters ultimately torpedoed). In 2011, then-City Council members voted to close the plant (that was during former mayor Bill Foster's administration), and the plant closed in 2015, during Kriseman's tenure.
While in office, Baker was wishy-washy over its closure (and that of the airport), despite the then-Saint Petersburg Times — now the Tampa Bay Times — being all about slating the airport site for redevelopment (which would have necessitated the plant's closure). Times reporter Charlie Frago, aggressively grilled Kriseman over the Whitted plant closure on Thursday, bolstering long-running talk about the paper's pro-Baker coverage.
Baker's campaign responded to Kriseman's remarks by chiding Kriseman for allegedly not taking "responsibility" for the sewage spills.
Also grilled was Suncoast Sierra Club political committee chair Dave Harbeitner, who explained more than once why his organization believes in Kriseman, whom they endorsed last week.
“Specifically, it's what he's done while in office. The Office of Sustainability, the support of Complete Streets policy initiatives, the work on the master plan for the water and sewer; really taking a long-term view toward what is going on and taking action to support [solutions],“ Harbeitner said.
Sure, St. Pete's designation as a "Green City" happened under Baker's tenure, he said, but much of Baker's eco-cred is "greenwashing" compared to Kriseman's record, and that's why this local chapter of the environmental nonprofit supports him.