Tuesday, September 25, 2018

St. Pete City Council candidates spar over Rays, police chief selection

ST. PETERSBURG — The six contenders for City Council seats squared off Tuesday night over the location of a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium and how to select a police chief.

The third candidate forum, held by the Disston Heights Civic Association at St. Petersburg Community Church, also spanned topics from Greenlight Pinellas to whether council jobs should be considered full-time.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE No lack of issues facing St. Petersburg's six council candidates (Sept. 25, 2017)

While all the candidates expressed a desire for the Rays to stay in St. Petersburg, their sentiments varied on the prospect of the team leaving.

Barclay Harless, 32, who is running against Brandi Gabbard, 41, for a seat in District 2, thought it was wise to look ahead.

"If the Rays wanted to stay they'd try to stay," he said.

Gabbard said it would be "a sad day" if the Rays left.

Justin Bean, 30, who is running against Gina Driscoll, 46, for the District 6 seat, said he supports trying to get the Rays to stay.

"We're a major league city," he said. "Right now we have two professional teams, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Rays. I'd like to do whatever we can to keep them here."

Driscoll said the Tropicana area offers ripe opportunities for redevelopment.

City Council chairwoman Darden Rice, who is running for reelection to the District 4 seat against Jerick Johnston, 21, said the city needs to start planning for the future.

"The reality is they're down ticket sales between 10-12,000 tickets every game," she said. "I think we need to be realistic about the fact that the Tampa Bay Rays are likely to find a home somewhere else."

Johnston said he supported doing everything to make the Rays stay short of using tax dollars.

"I mean they're not gone yet," he said.


DISTRICT 2: Barclay Harless vs. Brandi Gabbard

DISTRICT 4: Jerick Johnston vs. Darden Rice

DISTRICT 6: Justin Bean vs. Gina Driscoll

Perhaps the most provocative question of the evening came when forum moderator Mitch Perry, a reporter for floridapolitics.com, asked the candidates how involved they would be in a hypothetical search for a new police chief. Former mayor Rick Baker, who is running again for mayor, has not committed to keeping current Chief Tony Holloway.

When Mayor Rick Kriseman took office, he replaced police Chief Chuck Harmon, who had been appointed by Baker when he was mayor the last time.

Most candidates expressed support for keeping Holloway.

"I would be a huge proponent to try to keep Chief Holloway," said Gabbard, who has been endorsed by the police union. "I don't think anyone who knows me wouldn't say I speak out when I believe in something, so I certainly would be (imploring) the mayor to not make that change, but that would ultimately be his choice, and it would be something I'd be very unhappy to see happen."

Harless said he too supported Holloway but wouldn't want to be heavily involved in the selection process.

"I know crime is not perfect in every part of our city, but I think Chief Holloway has done an outstanding job, especially building relationships in parts of our city (where they) did not exist," he said. "I'm very cautious of council trying to tell the mayor what to do. I really think the council should focus on the budget, it's core responsibilities."

Driscoll said he supports keeping Holloway, but would want an active role on the City Council if a new chief had to be selected.

"If it did come to that, I would want City Council to have some input on that," Driscoll said. "This is something that has significant impact on the quality of life on every single resident. We have to make sure the person who leads that department is the best person we can find, whether they live in St. Pete, Clearwater or Atlanta."

Bean said he too would want to be involved.

"If for some reason this was an issue, I would want to have a say on that," he said.

Johnston, who answered first, said he believed the City Council would be there to assist Baker.

"If he decides to go that route, I think City Council is there to advise and consent and be involved in that process," he said.

Rice, however, explained the existing limitations council members face.

"Okay, so the charter is like the city's constitution and in the charter it spells out the bounds of power of the mayor's office and City Council," she said.

In 2005, the charter stated that council members who opined on the choice of police chief could be taken out of office. An amendment, which will be on the ballot, is proposed to allow council members to comment on hires.

"I think you should vote yes for that," she said. "We want to be able to say something and comment on these hires without getting in hot water with the charter. It's the choice of the mayor, it should be the mayor's, but we should be able to use our First Amendment rights to say what we think about it."

The prospective council members also discussed whether the job should be considered full-time or part-time. While none supported an immediate pay raise, Rice, Johnston and Gabbard acknowledge the duties of the job are full-time.

Driscoll said the hiring of legislative aides for members, as the council is doing this month, should ease the balance between managing another career. Harless said perspective gained from a job outside of council would be valuable. Bean said he supports keeping the job part-time.

"This position is a public service," he said. "You have to be willing to take time to give back to the community."

The election is Nov. 7.

Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.

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