St. Pete mayor eliminates deputy mayor position following City Hall resignations, bullying allegations

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch directly addressed allegations of bullying within his administration for the first time since two city officials resigned last week,

Thursday, Mayor Welch announced there will no longer be a deputy mayor in his administration. Instead, the chief of staff will work closely with city administration.

"I do not believe that there is a pervasive, hostile work environment in our city," he said. "But as mayor, I need to base my decisions on facts and data, not solely on my beliefs. So, I'm taking steps to make sure that we acquire feedback from our employees in the current workplace environment so that our employees feel more empowered to report any inappropriate behavior."

On Sept. 1, communications director Janelle Taylor submitted a formal resignation letter to Welch citing a hostile work environment created by deputy mayor Stephanie Owens and what she claimed was the city's refusal to address the issue.

"After our discussion on August 30, 2022, 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," Taylor wrote.

Sources say Owens consistently used condescending language, not only towards subordinates but to other high-ranking officials as well. Staffers also feared retribution and retaliation for speaking out because Owens' behavior had not been addressed when issues were raised prior.

PREVIOUS: St. Pete deputy mayor resigns following bullying allegations

"In the case of the statement of our former comma director, there were no complaints filed nor was I informed of a problem until that meeting," Welch said Thursday. "She alleged a hostile workplace environment related to…Owens. Ms. Owens disputes that charge. It is important to respect Ms. Taylor’s statement…but it’s also important to respect Ms. Owens’ statement."

Welch noted that Owens' primary role was policy development and managed nine out of 3,600 employees.

"The vast majority of our organization did not report to the deputy mayor," he said. 

Following Taylor's resignation, the city launched an internal review, and Owens was placed on administrative leave. The following day, on Sept. 2, Owens resigned, and the review was dropped.

Owens did not respond to the accusations directly in her own resignation letter, instead saying, "recent events distract from our impactful and intentional work to move our great city forward, and therefore I resign in the spirit of progress."

Despite multiple sources saying Owens' behavior was a well-known problem, some City Council members claim to have been in the dark about the issues.

Council chair Gina Driscoll told FOX 13 she’d only known Owens to be professional and capable.

"It was very concerning. When I learned of this yesterday, it was the first I had heard there was any kind of an issue happening at that level," Driscoll told FOX 13's Evan Axelbank on Friday. "Her experience at this level and all the way to the national level, has been invaluable. It certainly leaves some big shoes to fill."

In a letter issued to city employees following the resignations last week, Mayor Welch called the allegations "serious" and said to be, "assured that our governing principles set a high standard for civility and professionalism, and they will be upheld."  

In a separate statement to the media, Welch said Taylor's concerns over Owens had first been brought to him on Aug. 30. He also said no complaint was filed with the human resources department.

"I see this as an opportunity to inform our employees of what to do if they encounter workplace bullying," Welch said.

Following Welch's press conference, Taylor issued the following statement:

"I stand by my letter of resignation and subsequent comments on my departure from my position as communications director. At this point, it is important that I focus on my next career steps, which I will be announcing in the coming days, and move on from the unfortunate circumstances that prompted my resignation. I encourage existing City staff to heed Mayor Welch’s stated goal of providing safe avenues for which to report grievances and hope those channels will provide employees the means to ensure a healthy workplace atmosphere."