ST. PETERSBURG — Saying it was a small step to protect their free speech rights, the City Council unanimously approved a proposal Thursday to change the city charter to allow members to weigh in on high-level mayoral appointments without fear of being removed from office.
The issue now goes to voters on Nov. 4.
"You can't be the voice of the people if you can't talk," said council member Steve Kornell.
Before the vote, City Administrator Gary Cornwell and City Attorney John Wolfe tried to convince council members that the change was unnecessary.
Wolfe said his legal opinion had changed since June, when he told council members not to comment on Mayor Rick Kriseman's appointment of a new police chief.
Wolfe told the council Thursday he could write a legal opinion to protect members from removal. And he said he didn't think offering opinions to family members or other members of the public was a charter violation.
Cornwell also pointed out that a member's removal would require a council vote. "It doesn't sound like you all would be real inclined to do that," he said.
But the council opted to go ahead with the charter change.
"This is a modest proposal," said council member Karl Nurse. "This is not a slippery slope."
Wolfe's about-face was not lost on council members. Nurse called it a "dramatic evolution."
In a later interview, Wolfe said the opinion he gave in June was a "conservative" one. As he thought about it, he came to believe the existing charter language offered "some leeway."
The proposed charter change would clarify that council members had a right to voice their thoughts on the mayor's hiring of a police or fire chief, city administrator or "higher management-level employee," which Nurse, who authored the ordinance, has defined as a department head.
Several council members said they had no desire to meddle with mayoral powers under the city's "strong mayor" form of government.
"It preserves mayoral power," said council member Darden Rice.
The special election, which will coincide with the general election, will cost the city $20,500.
Kriseman didn't have any comment on the council's action, said spokesman Ben Kirby.