Jim Kennedy, St. Petersburg's 'laid-back, analytical' council member, wants another term

“I don’t make my decisions based on which way the popular opinion may be flowing,” says council member Jim Kennedy.

LARA CERRI | Times

“I don’t make my decisions based on which way the popular opinion may be flowing,” says council member Jim Kennedy.

ST. PETERSBURG — Asked to introduce themselves at a recent forum on the arts, candidates for mayor and City Council trotted out stories about their children's theatrical performances and the art they've collected.

When it came to City Council member Jim Kennedy, he skipped the pandering.

"I, like the mayor, suffer from understanding color," he told the room. "But I'm not afraid of where that 10 to 15 percent of more creative people want to take us."

That is the Kennedy that City Hall watchers and members of the city's political class have come to know: a straight-forward, no-nonsense politician who is slightly deaf — or maybe blind — to what's politically expedient, and prefers it that way.

"I think generally people like my style — laid-back, analytical," he said recently. "And I think that's what people want to see on City Council, they don't want to see bickering."

In the six years he's been in office, Kennedy's colleagues have provided plenty of discord. He has been the mild-mannered lawyer, known for working on budget issues and scrutinizing city contracts. And perhaps because they share the same legal background, he's also known for his willingness to support many of Mayor Bill Foster's proposals, both the popular and the less-so.

Appointed to the council in 2007 after council member John Bryan committed suicide, Kennedy had never held office before. He was elected two years later by the thinnest margin of any council candidate that year.

In 2010, when St. Petersburg's bar scene shut down before Tampa's, Kennedy proposed pushing closing time from 2 to 3 a.m., a move he said was driven by economics. That decision is now widely credited with helping revive the city's downtown.

Later that year, spurred by Foster, he proposed that the city install red-light cameras to cut down on collisions. It's a project he still supports today. The cameras have done their job, he said, noting that T-bone crashes have fallen, though popular opinion has turned against the cameras and the hefty fines that follow.

Depending on who replaces the two term-limited City Council members in the Nov. 5 election, red-light cameras could lose their support from the city, a prospect Kennedy does not relish.

"I would hope that the two people who fill the open seats would realize that their education process is going to be so extensive," he said. "Their opinions on those issues may evolve."

More recently, Kennedy has taken the mayor's side in this summer's debate over the city's Lens design for the Pier, a proposal that ultimately died at voters' hands in the primary. His support for the Lens is what propelled his opponent, Lorraine Margeson, to run against him.

"He was just tone deaf," Margeson said. "It was basically: Here's how it's going down, we've made the decision and I know better."

Kennedy says he and the rest of the council did listen to the public, or at least those that got involved in the debate.

Financially, the Lens made sense to him. And as for the architectural design, he would leave that to the architects. His own idea was to run a Busch Gardens-style gondola ride up to the top of the Pier, a suggestion that, when he gave it more thought, confirmed to him the importance of relying on professionals.

"I don't make my decisions based on which way the popular opinion may be flowing that particular day," he said. "There's a reason for representative government and I take very seriously preparation, reading the pros and cons, and being advised of things."

These days, Kennedy is forced to explain his support for the Lens at almost every forum. He'd rather talk about the city's need for mass transit improvements, but it's the Pier that keeps resurfacing. His closeness to Foster has been overplayed, he said. He's not endorsing either mayoral candidate though both have endorsed him.

"We both have a mutual respect for one another," he said of Foster. "That's been interpreted as much more of a political alliance than it really is."

In his district, which stretches from Sawgrass Lake to Weedon Island, Kennedy has focused on opening public parks. The latest is slated to break ground next month and was met, early on, with opposition from local residents worried about noise.

Kennedy and city planners agreed not to light the tennis and basketball courts at night, a sign to Paula Timoney, president of the Renaissance Homeowners Association, that they were listening.

Asked if she plans to vote for him in November, Timoney said yes. "I have no reason not to vote for him," she added.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Jim Kennedy, St. Petersburg's 'laid-back, analytical' council member, wants another term 09/16/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 17, 2013 12:21am]

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