ST. PETERSBURG — City Council members have schmoozed economic investors and rewarded do-gooders with baseball tickets to the city suite at Tropicana Field for years.
The long-standing perk is a "thank you" for people who "put in a lot of work for the city," said Council member Leslie Curran.
Most council members tend to dole out their city-issued tickets to business owners and neighborhood presidents within their districts. Council member Jamie Bennett followed this practice.
But after Bennett announced his candidacy for mayor, he began giving his tickets to supporters and community leaders across and even outside the city, according to a St. Petersburg Times review.
Bennett gave two of his campaign's earliest supporters, arts leader Bob Devin Jones and St. Pete Beach Mayor Michael Finnerty, several tickets each to the Tampa Bay Rays game on April 19, according to reporting forms council members submit to show how tickets were used.
Bennett also promised tickets to David Hoover, president of the Riviera Bay Civic Association, and Darren Bishop, president of the North East Park Association, both of whom live outside his southern St. Petersburg district.
Bennett said Friday all future tickets would be distributed by his council aide to neighborhood associations in his district.
Bennett's handling of city tickets has been under scrutiny in recent weeks after allegations that he intentionally used his tickets to garner support for his campaign, a charge Bennett has denied. The Florida Elections Commission and the Florida Commission on Ethics have been asked to investigate.
The controversy has prompted calls for a new ticket distribution policy from mayoral hopefuls Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster, who also are former council members.
"Why are city baseball tickets going to the mayor of St. Pete Beach?" said Ford, who suggested tickets be given to residents through a lottery instead.
Currently, city policy requires that tickets be used to promote economic development, recognize active residents or reward city employees.
"The availability of the Suite/Field tickets at Tropicana Field provides a significant opportunity to promote the City of St. Petersburg in a most positive way," the policy states.
Generally, council members or city departments receive all of the city's 16 suite tickets and 10 field level tickets for specific games.
Last year, Council member Wengay Newton gave the Central Oak Park Neighborhood Association — which is within his western St. Petersburg district — a night at the suite. He and a guest sat in the city's field seats that night. "We use them for the neighborhoods or nonprofits or churches," Newton said.
Neighborhood leaders said they appreciate the gesture.
"It's a wonderful practice," said Barbara Heck, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, a frequent ticket recipient. "It's a lot of fun to watch the baseball games and you have a chance for the neighborhoods to talk to each other."
However, the Times review found that Bennett wasn't the only one setting aside tickets for friends or potential supporters.
Council member Bill Dudley, a retired coach at Northeast High School, has used his tickets to recognize neighborhood leaders. He also gave them to former Northeast co-workers and alumni association members, according to public records. On two other occasions, he handed them out to fellow members of the Exchange Club of Northeast St. Petersburg, a charitable group.
"The policy, to my understanding, is that it be used for constituents," Dudley said.
Council member and local attorney Jim Kennedy invited his colleagues on the Pinellas Planning Council to an August game and hosted a handful of Tampa attorneys at a April 2008 game. He also gave three tickets to a total of two games to Mark Chmielewski in 2008. Chmielewski, of Strategic Equity Group, recently donated $500 to Kennedy's re-election campaign.
In another instance, Kennedy provided an employee at his law firm two tickets. Kennedy did not return calls for comment.
Bennett's ticket troubles began last month after he admitted he had used his campaign manager to distribute them. A city neighborhood association president then said he received Bennett's tickets inside a campaign folder that included a fundraising request.
Bennett fired his campaign manager Peter Schorsch over the flap, saying he didn't know about the bundling, although he was there when it happened.
Schorsch, in turn, claimed the tickets were part of a campaign strategy. The plan was to use the tickets to curry favor with neighborhood leaders and canvass their neighborhoods just before the association's monthly meeting in hopes of generating a positive buzz, Schorsch said.
Bennett said there was no such "ticket strategy."
On Friday, it was Bennett's night at the city's suite, but he wasn't there.
As the Tampa Bay Rays faced off against the Cleveland Indians, a rash of young people sat in the city's suite drinking beer and eating hotdogs.
Reached by telephone, Bennett said he had gone to a play instead. So who were the people in the suite?
"They were all distributed," he said. "I couldn't even begin to tell you."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.