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St. Petersburg's mostly green City Council faces hot potatoes

ST. PETERSBURG — A series of resignations and elections have brought a crop of new faces to the City Council in the past two years.

That means by the time the council appoints a successor to Earnest Williams, whose resignation takes effect Monday, more than half of the council will have less than two years of experience under their belts, and seven of the eight council members will not have served a full term.

Half will participate in the annual budget process for the first time this fall.

That combined lack of experience worries some community leaders, who say a fresh-faced council could give the mayor and city administrators an unprecedented amount of influence at a time when the city is grappling with tax cuts, an increasingly visible homeless population, a series of high-profile youth crimes and a $1-billion downtown redevelopment project.

"The more new blood you have on (the) council, the more the staff controls," said former member Bob Kersteen. "They don't know how to question or what questions to ask ... so they tend to be more 'yes' people than really delving into the information."

On the other hand

Others say the ebb and flow of the council's makeup is a natural part of the process. New council members, they say, are just as likely to vote down a controversial proposal, fight for a new park or question the city's spending as their more experienced counterparts.

"They will question even more because they are new to the process and they are trying to learn how the process takes place," said Barbara Heck, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations.

The latest council vacancy comes on the heels of Williams' decision to resign and run for state office. His campaign for the District 55 state House seat ended unsuccessfully in March. Although he could request to be reappointed to his seat, the city has already begun to accept applications from other potential members.

If a new person is appointed, he or she will join a mostly green council.

Herb Polson was appointed in 2006. James Kennedy was appointed in October. Wengay Newton and Bill Dudley were elected in November.

In Williams' absence, the longest serving members of the council will be Jeff Danner, elected in 2005, Leslie Curran, elected in 2005, and Jamie Bennett, elected in 2001. This is Curran's second stint on the council. She served from 1989 to 1997.

Despite his less than four months in office, Newton said his constituents have nothing to worry about.

"I have been asking these people so many questions that they don't know what to do," he said of the city's staff. City staffers said that each new council member is given an orientation that goes over everything from the state's Sunshine Law, which promotes open government, to council procedures.

"We have new council members all the time. The learning continues as they go on," said city attorney John Wolfe.

The last time the council experienced such a sudden makeover was in 2001, when a similar wave of elections and appointments brought a flock of new faces to the council.

"The city didn't fall apart," said Bennett, who was elected that year along with two other council members.

The stadium issue

But already, some residents say they have observed a shift in power at City Hall and wonder if the council's inexperience has anything to do with it.

Most recently, Mayor Rick Baker and city administrators entered into a confidentiality agreement with the Tampa Bay Rays that kept the team's plan to build a stadium at Al Lang Field a secret from the council and the public for more than a year. State law requires the city to abide by such agreements, but others argued that the council, and the public, shouldn't have been left in the dark.

"It really turned the process around," said former council member Kathleen Ford. "The council has a voice. They should use it."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg's mostly green City Council faces hot potatoes 04/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 10, 2008 10:58am]
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