Fact-checking the St. Petersburg mayoral debate between Rick Baker, Rick Kriseman

Incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker debate in front of a live television audience during the City of St. Petersburg Mayoral Debate at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg on July 25, 2017. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker debate in front of a live television audience during the City of St. Petersburg Mayoral Debate at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg on July 25, 2017. (DIRK SHADD | Times)

Rick Baker and Rick Kriseman tussled over St. Petersburg’s sewage problems and accused each other of bringing partisan politics into a nonpartisan mayoral race during the only televised debate before the Aug. 29 primary election.

Kriseman, the incumbent mayor, said it was a mistake to close the Albert Whitted sewage plant in 2015. The closure led to nearly 200 million gallons of sewage spilling into Tampa Bay.

"Knowing what I know now, absolutely it was a mistake to shut down Albert Whitted," Kriseman said at the July 25 debate hosted by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9.

Baker, who served two terms as mayor from 2001-10, said his administration did what it could do to improve the city sewage system during his nearly nine years in office, and that the city would have avoided spilling thousands of gallons of sewage into the bay with proper upkeep and keeping the Albert Whitted plant open.

The one-hour debate also covered the candidate’s positions on the Tampa Bay Rays’ stadium search, the fate of the current police chief under Baker, and LGBT issues.

Here is the context behind what they said.

Who spilled what?

Asked if he would take any responsibility for the faulty sewage system, Baker said he invested $160 million from 2001 to 2009 on infrastructure.

"We had no spills for that period of time," Baker said.

Kriseman didn’t drop the issue when asked about the city’s cost of living, saying, "That’s just simply not true. He did have spills. On the first day he was in office he had a spill."

Let’s put the spills in perspective.

About 1.5 million gallons of sewage spilled over Baker’s two terms in office, according to the Tampa Bay Times. (At other points in the debate, Baker said there were no "significant" spills when he was mayor.)

The city has dumped about 186 million gallons of sewage over just two summers in Kriseman’s first term, according to the Times. By contrast, about 796,000 gallons of sewage was spilled during the tenure of former Mayor Bill Foster from 2010-14.

State officials investigating the spills have spread the blame beyond one person or administration. The Times obtained a draft report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that blamed St. Petersburg sewage problems on leadership going back more than two decades, which would include the tenures of Baker, Foster and Kriseman.

The report points to the closing of the Albert Whitted plant as a key reason for the sewage crisis.

Baker: "We went from 0 to 16 A elementary schools ... and we increased the number of A and B schools by 260 percent during that period of time."

Baker has made this claim before. In previous versions, we rated the claim Mostly True.

Baker’s evidence comes from the Florida Department of Education. In 2001, there were 0 A elementary schools. At the end of Baker's last full year in office in 2009, the number of A elementary schools had jumped to 16. The number of A and B total schools (not just elementary schools) went from seven in July 2001 to 26 in July 2009

As Baker usually acknowledges, it didn’t happen solely because of his efforts — the school board sets local education policy and the superintendent carries it out.

Baker downplays comments on police chief’s job security

Kriseman warned that if Baker is elected, St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway could be fired. Baker denied saying he would fire Holloway.

"I never said that, never implied it," Baker said. "I actually met with Chief Holloway. I like him. I just don’t like his boss."

Baker has been vague concerning Holloway, the former police chief in Clearwater who was hired by Kriseman in 2014.

During a debate at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church on June 27, former police Sgt. Al White asked if it mattered to Baker that Holloway doesn’t live in the city. Kriseman stood by Holloway, but Baker’s response was less sure.

"The police chief who is protecting our city ought to live with us," Baker said.

At another debate July 10, when all the mayoral candidates were asked point-blank if they would retain Holloway, Baker was again noncommittal.

"I like Chief Holloway, but I’ll make no staffing decisions until after the election," Baker said.

Baker’s Republican support

Each candidate got to ask the other a question, and Kriseman used his to bring up comments Baker made in 2008 supporting Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. At the time, Baker said Palin would make a "great vice president." Baker, a Republican, held up the moment as an example of Kriseman doing "everything in his power to make this a partisan race."

Kriseman, a Democrat, responded with a jab at Baker’s donors: "It’s ironic that I’m being accused of partisanship when the majority of your party is coming from the Republican Party."

Baker said that was wrong: "Not $1 of the money that I’ve got has come from the Republican Party. ... I wish he would quit saying that because it’s simply not true."

Baker is correct that he hasn’t received money from the official Republican Party. But Baker is seeing support from high-profile Republicans and GOP-aligned committees.

Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards gave Baker, his employee, two $25,000 checks. Other Republicans who have donated $25,000 to Baker’s Seamless Florida PAC include GOP fundraiser Mel Sembler, Ashley Furniture founder Ron Wanek, entrepreneur James MacDougald, NexTech founder and physician Kamal Majeed, and construction executive Jonathan Stanton, state campaign finance records show.

When the Times asked Baker’s campaign about the donations in June, a spokeswoman said the campaign had attracted a fair share of Democrats and independents as well. Baker said given the impact of the city’s sewage issues, "It should not be surprising that others are interested about what is going on in St. Petersburg."