A decade later, Nurse and Kennedy depart St. Pete City Council

St. Petersburg City Council member Jim Kennedy, left, is seen along with council member Karl Nurse in this combination of two images. After serving a decade together, both will be leaving office on Tuesday. [Times files]
St. Petersburg City Council member Jim Kennedy, left, is seen along with council member Karl Nurse in this combination of two images. After serving a decade together, both will be leaving office on Tuesday. [Times files]

ST. PETERSBURG — Karl Nurse and Jim Kennedy first met when they roomed together at a St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce leadership retreat. That was back in 1991.

Now, Kennedy, 60, and Nurse, 63, are leaving the City Council after serving a decade together.

They have been linked together from the start: Nurse lobbied Kennedy to accept an appointment to the council in October 2007 to take over for John Bryan, who committed suicide after allegations of child abuse surfaced.

Kennedy returned the favor months later in April 2008, advocating for Nurse to be appointed to what was traditionally a seat held by black politicians. That caused Kennedy some political angina with black voters as he headed into his first election in November 2008. He won, of course.

Since then, the two Democrats have occasionally found themselves on different sides of certain issues. But they rarely, if ever, clashed.

All that comes to an end Tuesday. Both have reached their term limits.

For the first time in 10 years, there won’t be a Kennedy or Nurse on the council.

• • •

Nurse is leaving with a long list of accolades, most recently the local Sierra Club chapter’s Black Bear Award for his environmental work. That includes pressuring Duke Energy to share cost savings with the city when it replaces traditional street lights with LED lighting (a victory to be formally announced in January); pushing for solar panels and other energy-efficient measures in city facilities; and bolstering the city’s electric vehicle fleet.

It was one of many tearful tributes to a progressive icon in the Sunshine City in recent weeks.

"If I had known people were going to be so kind, I would have quit long ago," quipped Nurse.

He is most proud of his accomplishments on housing. He pushed for a foreclosure registry during the height of the housing bust so banks would be held responsible for distressed properties’ upkeep.

Nurse also championed the "rebates for rehab" program, which helped jump-start an effort to reduce the number of dilapidated properties. The longtime chairman of the council’s housing committee, Nurse keeps close tabs on the number of boarded-up properties citywide, reciting the steadily declining number every chance he gets. From a high of 910 in July 2013, there are now only 238 boarded-up properties.

"He walks the walk, he doesn’t just talk the talk," said Mike Dove, the city’s neighborhood affairs director. "He’s not the kind of council member who says go fix this and bring it back to me. He sits down with us and says ‘let’s see what we can do.’?"

A lot more needs to be done, Nurse said.

"There’s no natural path forward for what most people call ‘the missing middle,’?" he said. "You want a place where the teacher, firefighter or cop can move to and the market is not building those."

• • •

Kennedy made his mark on the council by diving deeply into fiscal and budgetary issues.

He has chaired the influential budget, finance and taxation committee since 2009 and pushed to rewrite the city’s fiscal policy, moving more of the city’s roughly $500 million investment portfolio into higher-performing assets.

He also led the effort to bolster the city’s reserves, establishing a benchmark ratio of the reserves equaling 25 percent of the city’s general fund.

It’s part of his "deep-dive" philosophy of local government, Kennedy said.

"If you want to understand something," he said, "understand where the money comes from and where it goes to and then you can usually figure everything else out."

The city’s finance director said Kennedy has been a valuable partner. On a scale of 1 to 10, Anne Fritz said his fiscal acumen was outstanding.

"He’s probably as close as you get to a 10," Fritz said, "taking something complex and being able to bring it down to something that constituents can understand."

Kennedy also focused on transportation and planning. He has been a long-serving member of Forward Pinellas — the county’s recently renamed transportation planning agency — and its earlier iterations.

Kennedy is proudest of another accomplishment that hasn’t been as closely associated with his legacy: the creation of a seagrass mitigation bank. Growing seagrass and selling mitigation credits for about $500,000 each to developers who destroy the delicate marine plant elsewhere.

Approved last year by the council, the project is still in its infancy but could eventually earn the city millions, Kennedy said.

• • •

When Kennedy and Nurse clashed, it was because their highest priorities were in conflict. Kennedy’s concerns about spending discipline put him at odds with Nurse’s desire to improve conditions for the city’s poorest residents.

"Probably, Karl found me frustrating on some of his ideas," Kennedy said. "In any of our places where we voted differently, we always were able to advocate politely with full respect."

Kennedy is contemplating a run for the Pinellas County Commission District 6 seat currently held by Republican John Morroni, who is leaving office in 2018. State Reps. Kathleen Peters and Larry Ahern and No Tax for Tracks activist Barb Haselden have also announced their plans to run in the Republican primary. No Democrat has sought the seat since 2006.

Kennedy, who supported Republican Rick Baker in the mayor’s race, said he’ll make a decision soon.

Nurse has no definite plans for politics. He wants to travel and get his tennis game back in shape.

He’ll also stay active in affordable housing issues, including a consortium of non-profit home builders who are working with the city to build on vacant or demolished lots.

But for right now, Nurse said, "I don’t have a plan."

Nurse and Kennedy’s council careers will officially end at Tuesday’s ceremonial final meeting, when their successors are set to be sworn in at 9:30 a.m. at City Hall, 175 Fifth St. N.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]