Ethics complaint filed against St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch over appointment

Angelica Edwards/Tampa Bay Times/TNS
·3 min read

ST. PETERSBURG — A former mayoral candidate has filed an ethics complaint against Mayor Ken Welch alleging nepotism for appointing a family member to an administrative position in City Hall.

While many concerned residents came to City Hall this month to demand rent control, Vince Nowicki announced during a City Council public forum that he had filed a complaint against Welch regarding the appointment of James Corbett to city development administrator.

“How does the city say he’s the most qualified candidate when he didn’t apply for the job?” Nowicki told the Tampa Bay Times. Nowicki filed to run for mayor last year but dropped out before the primary election.

The complaint alleges Welch and Corbett are first cousins. It says that 32 people, including three internal candidates, applied for the job, Corbett was not among them. None of those candidates were granted interviews.

In a memo sent to the City Council shortly after Nowicki’s public comments, Welch said Corbett is not his first cousin, but his first cousin’s stepson until 30 years ago when the cousin’s marriage was dissolved. A Times story from 2015 describes Corbett as a brother to one of Welch’s cousins.

“I welcome any investigation deemed necessary regarding this complaint, and am confident the facts will show Mr. Corbett’s appointment was fair and reasonable and that no violations were committed,” Welch wrote.

Corbett did not respond to calls and texts requesting comment.

The city announced Corbett’s new position in a news release last month. It describes Corbett as “the most qualified candidate for the role.” Corbett began working with the city in 2005 in the codes compliance department and has served as an inspection supervisor, operations analyst, operations manager and director of Codes Compliance.

Corbett was appointed to community and neighborhood affairs administrator by Welch shortly after his inauguration in January. Corbett replaced Rob Gerdes, who was appointed by Welch to assistant city administrator.

The city development administrator role, according to the city’s organizational chart, is a lateral move for Corbett.

In a memo to City Council members, Welch said Corbett’s selection was recommended by Gerdes, who is now the city administrator. Welch said hiring decisions for high-level positions are at the discretion of the mayor and no policies were violated.

“We felt, and still believe, Mr. Corbett’s strong institutional knowledge and trust built over his career with the city make him the most qualified for city development administrator,” Welch said.

Nowicki said a city employee who wanted to remain anonymous alerted him of the possible violation. The complaint filed by Nowicki calls for suspending Corbett pending an investigation and consulting with the city attorney regarding how to “appropriately conduct such an investigation to safeguard against City Council potentially being found complicit or culpable due to inaction.”

The Florida Commission on Ethics does not comment on ethics investigations as long as the complaint “remains in a confidential stage.”

“Even if you remove that nepotism part of it, it still doesn’t look good,” Nowicki said. “And I think it’s unethical that no one else received fair consideration and he didn’t go through proper channels of applying for the job.”