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City rethinks need for press officer

Some call for clearing the channels of communication after the boil-water alert took so long to get out.

By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002


TAMPA -- Mayor Dick Greco has never used a full-time spokesman to talk for him.

But after it took more than three hours this week to alert city water customers to boil their drinking water, City Council members suggested Thursday that maybe the mayor needs one.

That discussion at Thursday's council meeting was part of a hard look at why the city took so long to notify the public of a potentially hazardous situation.

The problem occurred Monday, after officials realized city water could have been contaminated because of a generator failure. Though tests ultimately revealed the water wasn't contaminated, questions were raised about the time it took to get the word out.

At Thursday's meeting, City Council member Rose Ferlita said it might be less confusing to have one primary communications director for the city.

Fellow council member Bob Buckhorn, who is running for mayor, said creating such a post is "probably long overdue." He has said he will create such a job if elected.

City communications director Julie Harris, who also works as the mayor's neighborhood liaison, would normally notify reporters about a problem with the city's drinking water supply. But Harris wasn't told about the issue until later. Sandra Anderson, Water Department spokeswoman and consumer affairs manager, handled the news release.

The first release went out over an electronic media service, which some news organizations don't use, at 1:59 p.m. -- about two hours after a decision was made to issue a boil-water order.

The delay occurred because Anderson didn't consider the bulletin an emergency, acting Water Department director Mike Bennett said Thursday. The risk of contamination was extremely low. Officials issued the advisory only as a precaution.

But the public didn't see it that way, Bennett acknowledged. People considered it urgent news that they should boil their drinking water. "The communication system was not effective," he said. The department's spokeswoman should have gotten out a news release in less than 30 minutes, he said.

The mayor, who was upset at the delay in an era of possible terrorist attacks, issued a memo this week instructing all departments to work with Harris on news releases. Harris helps the mayor organize news conferences and issues releases but spends much of her time working as neighborhood liaison.

Former Mayor Sandy Freedman had a full-time spokesman, but Greco prefers to deal with reporters directly, she said.

-- David Karp can be reached at 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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