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Yet again, a lonely crowd vies for St. Petersburg City Council

ST. PETERSBURG — Monica Abbott seemed like a typical City Council candidate. She opened a campaign account and launched a website. She glad-handed at city functions.

Yet when the qualifying period ended last month, the community activist decided not to run.

"I was worried about how my life would be exposed," she said.

Ed Montanari, an airline pilot, also decided to sit it out.

"I looked at my family, at what kind of fundraising it would take, and decided it wasn't the right time to get in," Montanari said.

They weren't alone. In a city with 150,000 registered voters, incumbents Bill Dudley, Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton each drew just one opponent in this fall's council races. A fourth seat, opened when Herb Polson decided not to run again, drew three candidates.

"When you have an open seat, that's the best chance you'll have of winning in politics," said Polson. "And it drew only three people. That's surprising."

Not if one considers recent city history.

In the seven council elections before 1993 — the year voters approved a strong-mayor form of government — an average of 3.25 candidates qualified for each race. In the nine elections since, that fell to 2.56 candidates.

Incumbents have run unopposed seven times since 1995. That happened only once in the 10 years that began in 1983.

Races also are becoming less competitive. The average winning margin climbed from 57 percent to 62 percent.

There's no consensus among political insiders as to why races are becoming more exclusive and one-sided. Instead, they cite a variety of factors that could be fueling the trend: the strong-mayor form of government, the job's demands and pay, the economy and the election calendar.

Strong-mayor effect

Tough economic times are exposing a suspicion that the city's legislative branch has become a twig compared to its executive branch.

That might explain why in February, the city's top administrator, Tish Elston, suggested saving $150,000 by slashing the number of council seats from eight to five.

"The strong mayor certainly has removed the power of the council," said Polson, who will have served five years when he leaves at year's end.

Before 1993, the city's day-to-day operations were run by a city manager, hired by the council. The mayor was just one of nine council members, who, other than being chairman, had no extra powers. When a strong-mayor system passed, the manager's powers shifted to the mayor.

"The strong-mayor form of government may have changed the perception of what you're able to achieve at the City Council level," said Charlie Harris, managing partner of the Tampa law firm Trenam Kemker and a former chairman of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. "Maybe with the strong mayor, it's considered not worth it."

Not everyone buys that theory. For one, Tampa also has a strong mayor, yet it still draws an average of more than three candidates for each council seat.

St. Petersburg's council also still holds the purse strings, with power to approve or deny the mayor's budget.

"I don't think the council has been diminished," said Bob Ulrich, mayor from 1987 to 1991. For one, he said, their meetings are televised, giving them a higher profile than the mayor.

And those who are running this year say they are motivated by the council's ability to shape the city's future.

"There's a lot of big decisions coming up that have a 20- to 30-year outlook," said Josh Shulman, a financial planner seeking Polson's seat. "People realize the importance of the council."

Long hours, little pay

Many worry that running for the council isn't practical anymore for the typical resident.

They say a $38,914 salary isn't enough of a draw for people balancing regular jobs or families.

Consider the current council.

Polson and Dudley are retired. Four are business owners who can set their own hours: Leslie Curran (art gallery), Newton (photo studio), Karl Nurse (printing business) and Jim Kennedy (law firm). Jeff Danner ditched his contracting business and made his council gig a full-time job. Only Kornell, a social worker, answers to an employer.

"I hope we don't get out of touch," Curran said. "Because our council, right now, has people on it who aren't facing the issues that our residents are facing."

Danner said he has had trouble persuading people to run.

"I've joked that I've unintentionally talked quite a few people out of it," Danner said. "I tell them what the job takes, and they say they can't do it."

Don't expect a higher salary, said Mayor Bill Foster.

"It's still a part-time job," he said. "The fact that it requires full-time hours is beside the point. I think we draw qualified candidates, but anyone who is employed from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, is stuck."

Curran, who beat six other candidates when she first ran in 1989, thinks the time commitment turns people away.

Meetings take longer now, she said, and council members sit on area boards that oversee water, transportation, homelessness and tourist development.

In her first council stint, Curran raised three children, took college courses and worked full time.

"I can't imagine doing all that now," said Curran, who returned to the council in 2005.

The times we live in

The 1993 election now seems like the apex of St. Petersburg's political life.

That year, 53 percent of voters approved a strong-mayor form of government and voted in a divisive race for the new position, which pit then-Mayor David Fischer against Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger, the fired police chief.

By comparison, the 2009 mayoral race drew 29.3 percent.

"The 1980s and 1990s were a time of excitement," Polson said. "It was a time of growth. It was before the wars. People were much more willing to give up their time and talents."

Several candidates say low turnout makes them uneasy because races are harder to predict and plan.

Today's economy, coupled with that uncertainty, might make a run seem more of a risk, or at least a commitment. It costs $500 to qualify.

"Part of what's going on is that people are so caught up in trying to maintain their own lives, that the idea of taking up another obligation is too much for people," said state Rep. Rick Kriseman, a council member from 2001 to 2006.

The city's election calendar also may be hampering turnout. Unlike Tampa, which holds city races all at once, St. Petersburg staggers the schedule so half of the council is up for election when the mayor isn't.

Fewer people vote in those years. Since 1997, turnout averages 34 percent during a mayor's race. That drops to 15 percent when only council seats are up.

Once candidates do decide to run, it's not easy to raise money.

"There's not a lot of $500 checks out there for the City Council," Foster said. "I remember when I ran for mayor, and I finally saw checks of that amount and I couldn't believe it."

Many sources dried up years ago. More banks and companies were headquartered here in the 1980s and 1990s.

"There was much more corporate horsepower back then," Ulrich said. "Your community gets more attention from companies when they are headquartered in your city."

Since 2003, candidates in Tampa have raised an average of $26,760 — $10,000 more than a typical St. Petersburg candidate.

"We don't have a corporate base that Tampa does," Kriseman said. "Candidates have never raised big money in Pinellas."

But the nickels and dimes are important. Since 2003, the council candidate who raised the most won 12 of 15 races. In 2009, the five biggest money-raisers won council seats.

"It's tough to get any traction," said Montanari, who lost to Dudley in 2007. "The political parties don't get involved, because it's nonpartisan. Businesses don't get involved. … It's like trying to run on ice."

While Montanari outraised Dudley that year, Dudley enjoys widespread name recognition from his nearly 40 years as a teacher and coach.

In lieu of cash, personal connections like that are crucial, said Larry Williams, an ex-council member who lost the 2009 mayor's race. "If you're not in a certain clique," Williams said. "It can be tough."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story.


Deadline to register to vote

Aug. 1 is the deadline for St. Petersburg residents to vote in the Aug. 30 primary. There is one council race on the ballot, the District 1 seat being vacated by Herb Polson. The candidates are Charlie Gerdes, Robert Kersteen and Joshua Shulman. Three other races will be decided in the Nov. 8 general election because each incumbent drew only one challenger.

Yet again, a lonely crowd vies for St. Petersburg City Council 07/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 16, 2011 9:32pm]
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