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Red light critic becomes pollster of St. Petersburg politics

ST. PETERSBURG — Matt Florell may not have persuaded Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council to scrap plans for red light cameras, but he may yet influence city politics.

Since November, Florell has conducted three polls on various city issues, from Foster's approval ratings (which have ranged from 50 percent to 56 percent) to hypothetical matchups in the 2013 mayoral race (February's results: Foster, 48.5 percent; council Chairwoman Leslie Curran, 22.4 percent; council member Steve Kornell, 16.9 percent; state Rep. Rick Kriseman, 12.2 percent).

Why is Florell becoming the George Gallup of St. Petersburg? Well, for one thing, it's easier for him than most.

He owns Fextel Inc., a company on Fourth Street N that offers business phone systems and services based on open-source technologies. His company has done polling surveys for several clients.

"We can place these survey calls with very little expense, which we pay for," Florell said in an email.

He said that only one survey is allowed per phone number, and he keeps logs to ensure accountability. Robocalls are made only to registered city voters.

Florell said he plans to conduct polls every 45 days. The questions will be limited to those pertaining to St. Petersburg and issues in the news. During elections, he'll broaden the survey to include Florida issues. Florell said the effort is nonpartisan and that he'll strive to avoid any appearance of bias in the survey questions.

Florell said he's pleased with results, which he calls interesting.

Michael Maltzan and his architectural team might want to take note.

In a February poll in which 1,620 registered voters were surveyed, 72 percent favored options other than his reimagining of the Pier with the "Lens" design. The city is split on whether the property tax rate should be increased (49.4 percent yes, 50.6 percent no) to avoid further budget cuts. And that $60 million police station? Roughly 62 percent don't support it.

Florell's polls are already drawing notice from the political players.

Kornell posted the results of the hypothetical 2013 mayoral matchup (which placed him third among four candidates) on his Facebook page.

Kevin King, Kriseman's legislative aide, emailed Bay Buzz, the Times blog on local politics, after the results of the matchup (which placed his boss last) were posted this week.

"Did you ask the pollster if he was calling likely municipal voters, or just registered voters?" King asked. "Big difference in polling world, and results. And does he 'weight' the polls?"

Florell responded that he's calling only registered voters, not likely voters.

"Our primary goal with these . . . polls was not really to predict elections, but to take the pulse of the citizens on different topics," Florell wrote in an email. "At this point I really wouldn't put too much weight in a question about a city election that is 20 months away."

King said he inquired because of a general interest in polls as an onlooker of St. Petersburg politics.

"My interest in this poll is not related to Rick's interest in running for mayor or anything else," King said. "He has his own professional pollster that he trusts."

Kriseman said he didn't even know King asked about the poll.

"Kevin is a political junkie, so I'm not surprised he would call up to ask a question like that," Kriseman said. "It's his natural curiosity."

Well, does Kriseman plan to run for mayor?

"Not as I'm talking to you today I don't," Kriseman said. "I've filed to run for re-election in my own district. With session going on now, I'm not even thinking of it."

In the meantime, until candidates start announcing to run against Foster, politicos will have to settle for reckless speculation, fueled in part by more polls of hypothetical matchups.

Florell says his polls are accurate, but not weighted to match voter demographics. And he says they don't advocate any issue. Need proof? In February, Florell found his pet cause unaided by responses to this question: "Do you think installing red light cameras was a good thing?"

A majority, 53.5 percent, favored cameras.

For a complete rundown of his polls, go to www.stpetepolls.org.

Red light critic becomes pollster of St. Petersburg politics 02/11/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 11, 2012 3:31am]
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