Workers around the country are returning to their offices, but the mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida, still thinks he’s more effective working from home most days. In a recent investigation, the Tampa Bay Times found that Mayor Ken Welch swiped into City Hall for only 34 percent of workdays over the nine-month period after his January inauguration. His deputy mayor, Stephanie Owens, who recently resigned following accusations that she bullied colleagues and created a toxic work environment, reported to the office 41 percent of workdays during the same period (probably too often for her colleagues’ tastes). “I’m here when I need to be,” said Welch, a 58-year-old Democrat, earning a $227,910 base salary for running Florida’s fifth-largest city.
I’ve worked from home for 15 years and love it, so I’m sympathetic to workers who aren’t eager to return to their offices. But how does one run a city of 258,201 residents from home? According to the Times, Welch holds recurring meetings with his cabinet and city-development ministers via Zoom, though the staff are all expected to be in the office. Welch told the Times that conducting Zoom meetings saves him the time and hassle of driving and parking.
When Hurricane Ian hit the Tampa Bay region on the evening of September 28, all the city’s other key officials spent the night in a new Emergency Operations Center designed to withstand a Category Five storm. Welch went home, however, explaining that he received permission to do so from the police chief and the city’s emergency manager because the eye of the storm had moved south of the city. But the point of building a multimillion-dollar operations center was to ensure that key city officials had power and the ability to communicate with one another during an emergency.
The city council chairperson, Gina Driscoll, who earns less than a quarter of the mayor’s salary, says she rarely sees Welch at City Hall. “I’m not sure how you can effectively run a city of our size without being present in the day-to-day operations of the city,” she told the Times.
Welch claims that his constituents are still “getting their money’s worth” from him. And a friend told me he’s not troubled by the mayor’s office absenteeism: he figures the fewer hours government officials work, the less damage they can do.
Still, all this raises the question: What is our telecommuting mayor up to when he’s working from home? The day after the Times piece dropped, he tweeted about his meeting with a pet-rights group called St. Pete PAWS and linked to the city’s pet-friendly proclamation that “promotes compassion for St. Pete’s animal friends and encourages their human guardians to work together to provide safe, secure, and caring environments around the city.”
Other initiatives have been more troubling. A year ago, city voters—a majority of them registered Democrats—rejected a ballot initiative to fund and hire a chief equity officer. Undeterred, Welch won approval from the council to spend $319,000 to fund salary and benefits for an equity, diversity, and inclusion officer, along with an administrative assistant to serve under this official. The mayor’s budget also funded four full-time positions in procurement and supply management to, as the Tampa Bay Times put it, “implement recommendations from the city’s (recent) disparity study that found that companies run or owned by white men disproportionately received more business and the biggest contracts.”
The city just increased property-tax rates by 13 percent to pay for these and other follies. Justifying the budget, Welch wrote that “we must be intentional in the application of equity as a principal factor in all of our decisions.” In fact, the concept of “intentional equity”—that is, equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity—is one of Welch’s “pillars for accountable and responsible government.” Welch likes the concept of intentional equity so much that he included it in a city mission statement: “St. Petersburg will be a diverse, vibrant city guided by principled progress and intentional inclusivity, where innovation, partnerships and ingenuity create opportunity for all.” On hold during a recent call to the city to find out why my water bill has been so high lately, I had to listen to a cheerful woman repeatedly intone this Orwellian mission statement.
Joe Biden carried Pinellas County, where St. Petersburg is located, by about 1,000 votes in 2020. Governor Ron DeSantis carried it by ten points last week, after losing this bellwether county in 2018. Republicans now outnumber Democrats in Pinellas, but registered Democrats still hold about a two-to-one edge over Republicans in St. Pete, the county seat. The city has a large LGBT population, and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority panders to them with rainbow Ride With Pride buses that began during Pride Month but have remained in circulation the whole year. In a fawning portrait of city councilperson Richie Floyd, who became the first openly socialist candidate in a century to win a Florida election last year, Protean magazine enthused that St. Pete has “no shortage” of “rainbow LGBTQ+ flags” and Black Lives Matter signs. (Welch himself has displayed them, as in 2020, when, serving as a Pinellas County commissioner, his BLM Zoom background came under fire from another commissioner, who said some constituents had complained about it.)
On November 8, 70 percent of voters approved a ballot initiative to reschedule the 2023 election to 2024, thus giving the socialist Floyd and Mayor Welch another year to work. This probably wasn’t a vote of confidence. The ballot measure was sold as a cost-savings measure to bunch elections together and would probably make sense if St. Petersburg had a competent mayor.
There was some good news for conservatives at the county level. Conservative candidates captured the only open county commission seat up for grabs, and right-leaning candidates also won two nonpartisan school board seats. Meantime, 33-year-old Anna Paulina Luna, a conservative Hispanic woman, former model, and Air Force veteran, flipped the redrawn thirteenth congressional district—a seat once held by former governor Charlie Crist, whom DeSantis crushed in the governor’s race.
Florida is growing fast, and most of the people flocking here are Republicans lured by the prospect of living in a free state during the pandemic. Locals’ fears that the Yankees coming to town will vote for liberals seem overblown, at least for now (see DeSantis’s 20-point win). But liberals are also moving here, albeit in smaller numbers, and they’ll continue to settle in liberal enclaves like St. Pete. So I suspect that our woke, telecommuting mayor, our socialist councilperson, and other lefty politicians are probably here to stay.
Photo: Sean Pavone/iStock