ST. PETERSBURG — They sang, they prayed and then they put their elected officials on the spot.
A higher power, they said, wants it this way.
"Our faith traditions tell us to go beyond mercy and also do justice," Elder James Myles of Bethel Community Baptist Church said during opening remarks of the annual Nehemiah Action Assembly hosted by the interfaith advocacy group FAST, which stands for Faith and Action for Strength Together.
Each year, the interfaith group of some three dozen congregations invites local officials to answer questions about community problems. Officials get the questions in advance and are asked to give yes or no answers.
By the end of the two-hour event Monday night, an estimated 3,000 members gathered in the outfield of Tropicana Field had received most of the answers they wanted.
All three Pinellas County commissioners who attended — Janet Long, John Morroni and Ken Welch — said they would work to set aside $5.9 million to provide dental services to about 13,000 needy county residents.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and State Attorney Bernie McCabe promised to continue to advocate for a program that keeps a first misdemeanor arrest off the records of juvenile offenders who successfully complete sanctions such as community service hours and counseling.
But they heard St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin equivocate when asked if Mayor Rick Kriseman's administration would create a mandatory local hiring program aimed at helping ex-offenders get hired on city construction projects.
Last summer, the City Council created the Construction Incentive Project, which gives incentives to contractors working on city projects with a price tag of $500,000 or more to hire ex-offenders and disadvantaged Pinellas residents. FAST officials announced Monday that Kriseman has directed city staff to include some projects that cost less than that amount.
But the group wants more. Currently, the city has seven construction projects, ranging from sewer lining to road resurfacing, that include the incentives. If those projects don't generate at least 50 percent of the projected 43,848 work hours for ex-offenders and disadvantaged workers by Oct. 1, will the mayor work to create a mandatory local hiring program?
Tomalin, who was standing in for Kriseman, replied that the administration's support for the program is "as strong as ever" but that mandatory requirements were only one possible strategy it would consider.
"There may be one that works better than mandatory," she said.
We'll have to take that as a no, replied Parisrice Robinson of St. Joseph Catholic Church.
"The people of Pinellas, we're not going away, are we?" Robinson asked.
"No!" the audience shouted.
"And if we don't see some unemployed workers get jobs by Oct. 1, we are going to be down at City Hall asking for some changes to this ordinance, right?"
"Yes!" came the reply.
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.