ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council will have a new chairman for the first meeting of the year Thursday, and it won't be Herb Polson.
Although he had been the vice chairman, the council instead unanimously chose Jim Kennedy to be its next leader. The position is far from ceremonial. On top of the nearly $40,000 salary that all council members get, the chair gets an extra $600 in discretionary spending.
More important, the chair gets to shape the debate by setting the agenda for the meetings, which includes proposing which matters will be discussed and which ones will be automatically approved. The chair also runs the meetings, establishing the pace and tone. Outside City Hall, the chair becomes the de facto voice for the entire board of eight members, and is the first to be invited to public events on behalf of the council. Inside City Hall, the chair gets the biggest office.
Kennedy said he's looking forward to being chair, and said he's already proposing changes, such as moving public comment up sooner during meetings so residents can comment before votes are taken.
"I was surprised I was nominated and Herb wasn't," Kennedy said. "Since I've been on council, it's the vice chair who gets it. It's obviously a compliment that they chose me."
Each year, the council votes on who gets the chair position, which for the past year had been held by Leslie Curran. When she got injured in a bicycle accident in late August, Polson replaced her. Heading into the Dec. 16 meeting when the council selected a new chair, Polson seemed the natural choice by many.
"I had assumed Herb was going to get the chair," said council member Karl Nurse, who was voted vice chair, barely beating Bill Dudley. "He wasn't even nominated. I believe Jim got it because he has a style that's very steady. When he talks about something, you can see the logical reasoning behind it, and there's no ego involved."
Does that mean Nurse thinks Polson had too big an ego?
"Well, Jim probably has less ego than anyone on City Council," Nurse said.
Polson said he didn't want the job. "I did my tour," Polson said. "It was long enough. I don't enjoy that position. You're in charge, but you're first among equals. It's difficult because you can't engage in debate, you can't make motions. You are instead the meeting facilitator."
Polson said he wasn't surprised he wasn't nominated. But because council members can't privately discuss matters before votes, Polson's preference for not serving again as chair wasn't — or shouldn't have been — widely known. Council member Wengay Newton nominated Kennedy, but thought it peculiar that no one nominated Polson.
"The vice chair usually gets it; they should have nominated him," Newton said. "But everyone was sitting around looking at each other. It was very awkward."
Newton said he finally nominated Kennedy because he thought he's better suited for the position.
"To be honest with you, Kennedy does the least amount of politicking," Newton said. "He's probably the most neutral. Nothing against Herb. He did a good job. But the meetings were a little longer. Herb likes to talk at meetings."
Polson, 62, was appointed to the council in 2006, one year before Kennedy, 53. Polson had been the city's longtime lobbyist. Kennedy is a family estate lawyer who was asked to step in to replace former council member John Bryan, who committed suicide. Both won subsequent elections.
Their styles are different. Polson, who jokes that he comes from the city's "prickly" western district, often criticizes the mayor's administration for getting materials to the council late and is known to give lengthy monologues from the dais. Kennedy rarely has an ill word to say about the administration and is the only council member who sits in on staff meetings. He's reserved at meetings and keeps comments short.
Kennedy has established a close relationship with Mayor Bill Foster. Since becoming mayor in January, Foster said he met regularly over breakfast with two council members: Curran, because she was the chair, and Kennedy, because he asked. Foster said when Polson was chair, he didn't meet with him because he didn't ask.
"Jim and I get along great," said Foster, who, like Kennedy, operates a small law firm. "We relate well to each other because we're sole practitioners. We have to balance our law practice and our staff of employees. We're analytical and understand contracts. We just hit it off."
That close relationship will only help Foster, who often would be challenged and grilled by Curran. While she opposed some of his initiatives, such as a more aggressive police chase policy, Kennedy was usually in line and would vouch for Foster's initiatives.