ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In St. Petersburg, Tuesday night’s debate is the battle of the Ricks. A debate between current Mayor Rick Kriseman and his political opponent in the upcoming election, former St. Pete Mayor Rick Baker.
When 10Investigates blew the manhole cover off the city of St. Pete's sewer problems in 2015, who knew it would become the key issue of this year's mayoral race.
“You know, when everything’s backed up, it's not good for our children,” said resident Shari Matthews.
Marie Wentzel, who also lives in St. Petersburg, agreed. “Yes, it is a big problem and it's something that definitely needs to be addressed,” she said.
Prosecutors say there was no criminal violation, but a scathing report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission blames Kriseman's administration for not heeding the warning from mid-level utility employees about capacity issues created by closing the Albert Whited Water Treatment Plant. As a result, millions of gallons of partially treated sewage was dumped into local waterways when heavy rains came and the system failed.
Baker is running ads pounding Kriseman on the issue and the hundreds of millions of dollars that must now be spent on infrastructure to upgrade the system.
Kriseman's supporters have hit back with political flyers saying he inherited the problem, and blaming Baker and other administrations before his for kicking the can down the road instead of fixing the leak issues when they were mayor.
At their previous debate, Baker said the issues were Kriseman’s responsibility. “In April 2015, Mayor Kriseman closed the Albert Whited plant. Four months after that, we dumped 31,000,000 gallons of sewage into Tampa Bay and into Clam Bayou.”
Kriseman said the infrastructure upgrades were needed long before he took office. “All we can guarantee is that we're going to do everything we can to build for what our expectations of the future are,” he said.
Most residents who talked about the issue ahead of Tuesday’s debate said the sewage issue ranks as a five or six out of 10 for them.
Jobs, traffic and homelessness were considered higher priorities.
“I don't want to just concentrate on the sewage and not on the other things that affect people,” said resident Kathryn Clark.
10News Political Expert Lars Hafner says he understands Kriseman's strategy to dilute the sewer issue by using his own weakness against his political opponent, but thinks the current mayor has accomplishments he could point to instead.
“Such as the Tampa Bay Rays, in order to look to the future of the baseball club. He got The Pier accomplished. He got a new police chief in,” said Hafner. “All of those issues are being obscured because of the sewer issue.”
Hafner said Baker also has a positive record to run on with a long list of accomplishments during his years as Mayor, including large improvements in the city’s schools.
“It shouldn't have happened, but it can be blamed on three administrations,” said city resident Mike Mann, “Not just one.”