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Welch eliminates deputy mayor position, addresses resignations

Mark Parker

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Mayor Ken Welch speaks during a Sept. 8 press conference at the St. Petersburg Police Department. Screengrab.

In the aftermath of two recent high-profile departures, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch announced he is eliminating the position of deputy mayor and adopting procedural changes.

During a press conference Thursday morning at the St. Petersburg Police Department, Welch addressed former Communication Director Janelle Irwin Taylor’s resignation following bullying allegations against her direct superior, Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens.

Welch thanked both women for their service and relayed his disappointment in the cause of their departures. As St. Petersburg’s mayor, he took full responsibility for the entirety of the city’s workforce and any alleged improprieties. He also sought to provide clarification on the matter at hand.

“First, I do not believe that there is a pervasively hostile work environment in our city,” said Welch. “But as mayor, I need to base my decisions on facts and data rather than my beliefs.”

Welch added that he is taking steps to ensure the administration receives better feedback from employees concerning their perceived workplace environment.

While it is important to respect Taylor’s allegations, said Welch, it is equally necessary to recognize Owens’ refutations. He reiterated that he had no prior knowledge of any misconduct claims against his second-in-command.

The deputy mayor’s primary function, explained Welch, was policy development. She directly managed nine employees out of 3,600 – and no one will fill that role.

“I decided that moving forward, there will not be a deputy mayor position in my administration,” said Welch. “I’ll have a chief of staff responsible for intergovernmental relations, strategic communications and policy initiatives reporting to me and working closely with the city administrator.”

Additional previously planned personnel and operational changes are also on the way, he said, including an enhanced complaint procedure.

Welch said he views the recent allegations as a chance to enhance plans and increase employee awareness. He noted that if a high-ranking official did not feel comfortable with or understand the process, “then perhaps other employees don’t either.” He also directed his staff to develop a citywide assessment that allows workers to provide confidential workplace feedback.

The mayor also addressed a confidential letter purportedly written by several 2021 campaign team members following his election – and recently obtained by Florida Politics (Taylor’s former employer). It accused Owens of creating “a toxic work environment” long before Taylor’s resignation.

However, Welch explained that after receiving the letter on Aug. 27 last year, he personally interviewed his campaign team, and the claims went unsubstantiated. He relayed that one of the three people named in the letter said they were unaware of their inclusion and any complaints “did not rise to the level of a hostile workplace.”

“Only issues of communication, scheduling, assignments and the like,” said Welch. “I intentionally asked every person if they felt unsafe, harassed, threatened or uncomfortable working in the campaign. All responded ‘no.’

“I hope that provides some context to that letter – it has no bearing on the current issue at hand with the city.”

Mayor Ken Welch (third from right) spoke at the Florida Economic Club of Tampa Bay’s Community Leader Social Wednesday night. Photo by Mark Parker.

The night before the press conference addressing the two high-profile resignations, Welch spoke on the departures at a private event.

Welch was the guest speaker Wednesday night at the Florida Economic Club of Tampa Bay’s Community Leader Social. Held at Sea Salt St. Pete, the first year-mayor touched on hot topic city issues, such as housing, the Tampa Bay Rays, redevelopment of the surrounding former Gas Plant District and Albert Whitted Airport.

The St. Petersburg native briefly relayed his childhood and love for the city before addressing the proverbial elephant in the dining room. Owens announced her resignation on Sept. 2 following allegations of bullying by Taylor the day before. Irwin’s departure was immediate, while Owens’ last day is Friday, Sept. 9.

“Anybody that is in management knows allegations of workplace bullying are difficult,” said Welch. “And it was unexpected – I never heard that there was a problem until Aug. 30, and when I found out, I took the appropriate actions.”

After Irwin’s Sept. 1 letter and immediate resignation, Welch announced he placed Owens on administrative leave the following day, pending an internal investigation. The deputy mayor announced her resignation hours later.

“In this case, there were no complaints filed with HR,” said Welch at the meeting. “I hadn’t heard of it in eight months of being a mayor, and it’s essentially one person’s word versus another.

“And that’s where I am right now.”

Welch told the Economic Club that he would continue dealing with the issue and noted his Thursday morning press conference would “outline how we’re going to deal with that.” He added that he believes in transparency and will deal with the matter with a sense of fairness.

 

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