St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens resigned Friday after she was accused of creating a “culture of bullying.” The move likely saved Mayor Ken Welch from having to fire her, but the resignation cannot be the end of this story. The allegations and the fallout raise a lot of questions. Among others: Why did the mayor hire Owens into the No. 2 job in the administration, and why didn’t he move sooner to remedy the situation? Did he not know what was going on, or did he not think it was that serious? Either way, there’s a lot of explaining to do.
News spread Thursday that city communications director Janelle Irwin Taylor had resigned from her $127,000 a year job after only seven months. In a letter to the mayor, Irwin Taylor wrote that she complained about Owens’ behavior, but not enough was done to address the matter. “I have determined that the disclosed hostile work environment, lack of communication or guidance and overall culture of bullying, all related to my direct supervisor, were not adequately addressed, and thus warrant my immediate departure from this administration,” Irwin Taylor wrote.
On Friday, Welch suspended Owens, who soon after announced her resignation effective Sept. 9. In an email to city staff, Welch said many of the right things about ensuring a “high standard of civility and professionalism.” But this isn’t some rogue city employee working in a far-flung office who the mayor never sees. This is his only deputy mayor, the person he has said he works most closely with to run the city, accused of bullying another high level administrator, Irwin Taylor. Where was the oversight? Where was the intervention? And why did Welch hire Owens in the first place? She was Welch’s campaign manager and transition director before he chose her to serve as deputy mayor and chief of policy after he won the election last year. But it appears that several members of Welch’s elections team were upset that Owens’ created a toxic work environment during the campaign — and that they complained to Welch at that time.
This story is still evolving. The details will matter — who knew what and when, and what did they do or not do with that information? But it doesn’t look good. It never does when a deputy mayor resigns under a cloud like this. The mayor is only eight months into his term, and he has a chance now for a hard reset, to lead from City Hall, to be present, to show the city and his staff what he stands for. But to begin to get there, Welch must facilitate a full airing of what happened, including his own role. Anything less will raise even more questions.
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