ST. PETERSBURG — Over the objections of police Chief Tony Holloway, council members on Thursday tentatively approved a measure that would allow people caught with small amounts of marijuana to avoid jail and instead pay a fine.
The measure now moves to a full council vote, perhaps as early as May, which could make St. Petersburg the second major city in Tampa Bay to decriminalize minor pot possession. Tampa's City Council passed a similar ordinance in March.
Meanwhile, Pinellas County is contemplating a diversion program advanced by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to steer adults into community service or rehabilitation classes instead of arresting them for petty crimes, including marijuana possession.
The proposed St. Petersburg ordinance would create a system of fines that would begin at $75, rising to $500 on the fourth offense for those caught holding 20 grams or less.
After months of deadlock, council members approved the ordinance as the Public Safety and Infrastructure Committee, a more informal board that allows vetting of proposed legislation. The proposal now headed to the council will have two versions. One would mandate police to issue a citation. The other would give officers the option to do so. Tampa made its program optional, which was preferred by police.
But council member Charlie Gerdes said allowing police discretion might unwittingly cause racial disparities in arrests.
"The better we do to eliminate discretion, the better and more complete job we do to eliminate disparities," he said.
Holloway urged that council members instead wait for the county's diversion ordinance that would create uniformity among Pinellas County's nearly two dozen governments. Competing programs will complicate an officer's job, creating a "buffet option" for the arresting officer: misdemeanor, diversion or citation.
"It gets confusing," Holloway told council members.
But council member Steve Kornell, who introduced the measure, said the city was tired of waiting for the county to move on the issue. A county workshop this month gave a Jan. 1 target date for a diversion program that would steer low-level offenders toward community service rather than creating a criminal record.
"It's astounding to me that all these high-level officials support a program that doesn't even exist," Kornell said.
The city has debated and refined its civil citation program since December, but the county hasn't met its pace or met the city halfway, he said.
"We tried to cooperate … but they said, 'We're going to do it our way,' " Kornell said.
Only City Council member Ed Montanari voted against Thursday's proposal, saying he wanted to see the county's plan in writing first.
"I would like to get it right the first time," he said.
Originally conceived as a way to reduce misdemeanor marijuana convictions, the council also broadened the proposal, adding littering, disorderly conduct, petty theft, trespassing and other minor offenses.
Despite the different approaches taken by the city and county, the intention is the same: to cut down on residents being saddled with criminal records for small-time offenses while thinning out the jail population.
"That's what all of us are trying to achieve," Gerdes said.
Contact Charlie Frago at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.