St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's latest response to the city's ongoing sewer crisis — hiring a highly paid public relations staffer — misses the point. A sewer system doesn't need PR. It just needs to work. And when it breaks, because old pipes are leaking or treatment plants are overwhelmed, it needs to be explained, but most important it needs to be fixed.
Repeated sewage dumps into Tampa Bay the last two years and muddied explanations from City Hall certainly left plenty of room for better communication. But to gloss over the dross is not an answer, and poor messaging isn't the real culprit here. An inadequate sewer system is, and the new spokesman should not try to spin an already weary and skeptical public.
Kriseman announced this week that former ABC Action News reporter and weather forecaster Bill Logan will fill a newly created spokesman job with the city's Public Works Department. That includes divisions such as engineering, traffic operations and fleet management. But the big newsmaker is the water resources division, which is responsible for the more than 200 million gallons of wastewater dumped or spilled the last two summers when heavy rains overwhelmed the city's aging sewers. Logan's hire was announced the same day that the state proposed an $820,000 fine against the city for the spills. The state would let St. Petersburg avoid nearly all of the fines if it follows a state-mandated master plan to fix the problems. Major fixes are under way, but they won't happen fast, leaving the possibility of more sewage dumps next year. That means up-front, spin-free communication will matter a lot; a PR campaign will not.
Logan will "work with the media and our residents to ensure the delivery of important information," Kriseman wrote on Facebook. That sounds like a fine mission — and a departure from previous handling of the sewage troubles. In June, Kriseman's spokesman argued with a Times reporter over using the term "sewage" instead of "very diluted wastewater." During that same period, the city refused to release updates on how much waste was being pumped into the bay, even as the discharges dragged on for days. In September, Kriseman was insistent that a 58-million-gallon spill through west St. Petersburg neighborhoods that had been kept secret from residents did not need to be disclosed because the water was clean. Then, when a whistleblower questioned that conclusion, the mayor admitted his mistake. Those are three unforced errors where Logan could vastly improve how information is communicated to the public. But none of that would have changed the facts on the ground, or the sewage in the water.
Logan kicked off his new gig by tweeting a selfie in front of the City Council and telling Times reporter Charlie Frago that he wants to spread "good stories so that when and if there's something we need to deal with, it's not going to be a huge vacuum that sucks up all the positive." Another sewage spill is much more likely a "when" than an "if," and no amount of flattering tales about municipal workings will mitigate the public's inevitable outrage. Nor should it. It's the nature of infrastructure that no news is good news, and that's especially true of sewers.
Given that it will take years and millions of dollars in public funds to correct St. Petersburg's complex sewer problem — and given Logan's $90,000 salary — anything less than straightforward disclosure to the public will rightly be seen as wasteful and misleading. Kriseman has had 13 months and multiple sewage spills to learn from this experience. The biggest lesson he should take is that the best PR is to fix the sewers and keep Tampa Bay clean.