It was a Tuesday morning in early August of last year. The Tampa Bay area was suffering from a series of storms that left rampant flooding and weeks without solid sunshine.
Then-CL contributor Cathy Salustri (now CL’s arts and entertainment editor) spotted something odd: sewage, apparently being pumped into Clam Bayou, which sits between St. Petersburg and Gulfport. The news sparked outrage among nearby residents, who’d had no warning it was going to happen. The sensitive waterway, which leads to Boca
Ciega Bay, was already imperiled and residents worried about its safety.
The city of St. Pete, under then-Public Works Director Michael Connors, was acting legally in dumping the nasty water, over 15 million gallons of it. But while St. Pete officials stressed that the dump resulted from an extremely rare rain event, some activists and officials from Gulfport saw red, losing their patience on efforts to get its neighbor to clean up the mess.
Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson was stuck in the middle of the controversy, and he now faces a challenger who says she’s running against him because of how the city handled the Bayou blight.
“After the recent dumping seven months ago,” said Barbara Banno, a former City Council member and owner of the Beach Boulevard restaurant Stella’s, “I had come to the conclusion that leadership in the city of Gulfport is really what was lacking.”
She said she wants to be able to more aggressively pursue an agreement with St. Petersburg that would outline the process for studying and dealing with environmental consequences of the dump.
Henderson, whose background is in environmental science and policy, stresses he’s already been working on Clam Bayou, that solving the issue is going to take time. Since there aren’t grounds for legal action, he said, the best bet for Gulfport is to stay the course in dealing with St. Pete. One thing he hopes will result is better information about the health of Clam Bayou, a long-impaired waterway.
“We need to listen to expert opinions on this,” he said. “I don’t want to throw money at a problem just to say we’re throwing money at a problem.”
But Banno insists there’s got to be a way to clean up the waterway, which for years had been so badly polluted that the Southwest Florida Water Management District installed ponds there to trap nasty sediment before water could flow through it and out to the bay.
“My first area of focus would be to create a Clam Bayou cleanup plan,” she said. “The relationship and the bureaucracy that comes from working with St. Pete, I would work through that process. But all we have been talking about for the last seven months is getting some kind of signed agreement with the city of St. Petersburg rather than focusing on cleaning up the mess, or bringing in experts to advise us.”
Henderson said many of the experts he has spoken with have said that unfortunately, an aggressive effort to “clean up” the waterway might be a waste of time.
“We ask people that spend their livelihoods and are well respected in their fields how you deal with an issue like the one we’re dealing with and they’re saying you just need to wait it out,” he said. “There’s no tried and true technology. Those are the expert opinions I keep hearing.”
The issue came to a head weeks ago during a Gulfport City Council meeting, when Vice Mayor Yolanda Roman, an ally of Banno, accused Henderson of
not trying to talk to Kriseman* about Clam Bayou, which Henderson called a “bald-faced lie.” In the heated exchange that followed, Henderson was called a bully, and replied he was defending himself against an unfair attack.
A spokesman for Kriseman confirmed that Henderson has met with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman multiple times on the issue since August, with the most recent meeting having taken place in late February.
The exchange was a reminder of how nasty the race has gotten, especially on social media.
“I’m very disappointed,” Banno said. “I would have liked to have maintained a candidacy where we’re just talking about the issues. The nastiness and the mean-spiritedness can really take a toll on a candidate.”
For Banno’s campaign, that means she’s had to deal with opponents airing her past financial missteps, including two foreclosures, which critics say call into question her ability to keep the city’s finances sound.
“What I want people to know is that I’ve been working very hard to pick up the pieces, working with my financial institution to keep my home, modify my mortgage and resolve my financial obligations,” she said. “For the two years I served on the council I was hands on and an integral part of the process of maintaining a balanced budget, keeping
Gulfport debt-free, even though we were experiencing a significant reduction in revenue.”
She’s also been questioned over the Pinellas Stonewall Democrats’ endorsement of Henderson over her, given that she is openly lesbian and the group’s mission is to advance LGBT equality.
But Beth Fountain, the group’s vice president for political action, said the endorsement shouldn’t reflect poorly against Banno, but should instead suggest the “embarrassment of riches” the race holds when it comes to such advocacy.
“Clearly it was a difficult decision and discussion took a long time both in committee and in the membership meeting,” she said. “And we just feel that Sam has a solid record of being a progressive Democrat and he has been, is and will be an equality candidate. Not that Barbara wouldn’t be.”
The criticism against Henderson, meanwhile, lies largely in the lack of much obvious progress on Clam Bayou, which he says is going to be a slow process no matter who is at the helm.
“We’ve been trying to handle this situation in a rational way, in a way that’s going to get us results that protect [us] in the future,” he said.
The election is March 15.
*After the print edition of this story ran, Roman contacted CL to clarify that she was asking Henderson why the commission as a whole hadn't met with St. Petersburg officials over Clam Bayou rather than just the two mayors.