Wednesday, January 17, 2018
News Roundup

John Romano: St. Petersburg redistricting makes it hard to play by the rules

Here's what I'm wondering:

Does anybody on the St. Petersburg City Council want to raise a stink about the residency controversy in the upcoming District 4 primary? Is anybody in the city attorney's office eager to weigh in? How about the mayor's staff?

My guess is no.

And maybe that's because they have all played a role in the creation of this mess, and they darn well know the process was incredibly unfair.

In case you missed the story by Tampa Bay Times reporter Mark Puente last week, it seems council candidates David McKalip and Darden Rice did not exactly put down firm roots in the newly redrawn District 4 as the city charter suggests.

Both say they satisfied legal requirements by renting apartments before redistricting took effect in March, although neither immediately called the moving vans.

So are they skirting the rules? Possibly. Are they being evasive? You could say that.

But based on the circumstances, the city hardly gave them a choice.

Consider the points below and decide for yourself:

1. The city charter requires a candidate live 12 months continuously in a district before running for office.

2. Redistricting came five months before the primary.

Get it?

A candidate who gets caught in redistricting has to maintain a residence in the old district right up until the moment the maps are changed, and then move into a new home the next day if he or she wants to satisfy the 12 continuous months rule.

That, of course, is silly.

It didn't matter that McKalip spent 10 years living in District 4, and it didn't matter that Rice owned three homes in the old District 4.

If they wanted to continue their campaigns this year — and both had expressed interest in running for City Council before the maps were approved — they had to find new homes while still holding on to their current houses.

So they both signed rental leases in the new district, and pretty much used them as mailing addresses.

McKalip says he is making improvements to his family home before selling it and buying in District 4. Rice recently moved into a new rental in District 4 and is trying to buy a house in probate.

Just to increase the frustration for the new candidates, the city's interpretation of the charter meant incumbents could not be drawn out of their districts. Meanwhile, all four houses owned separately by McKalip and Rice were whacked by redistricting.

"The process was confusing, it was unfair, it put an undue burden on a candidate, it almost created an impossibility to run for office,'' Rice said. "I've tried to do everything by the letter of the law, and everything I've done has been done with good intent.

"I wasn't going to stand by and watch my rights get trampled by a redistricting process that is impossible to defend.''

Is there a better solution?

Doing away with the 12-month regulation is a possibility. The state Legislature requires a candidate to live in a district only after winning the election. (It also does not allow districts to be redrawn to favor incumbents.) And if you think the 12-month rule is a necessary evil, then relax the residency requirements in a redistricting year. After all, they only come along once a decade. I'm a big believer in rules and agree they should typically be followed.

But is it really fair to change them in the middle of a game?

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