ST. PETERSBURG — Downtown businesses are closing at an alarming rate. Neighborhoods across the city are struggling with crime. And city leaders are trying to balance community needs with shrinking coffers.
If you ask the four City Council members running for election on Nov. 3, now is not the time to vote for untested candidates.
"There will be a new mayor for the first time in eight years. Regardless of who wins, we need a strong council to move us forward," said council chairman Jeff Danner, who hopes to be re-elected to District 8, which includes Historic Kenwood. "You need people who have been up here for a while that have experience."
To hear the newcomers tell it, however, the sitting council is composed of out-of-touch bureaucrats responsible for many for the city's ills. They have turned the campaign trail into a continuous roast of City Hall's most controversial moments.
Take the $170,000 dog park built with the last of the city's recreation dollars fund despite the demand for a new playground on the edges of Childs Park. Or the annexation of a sliver of Tierra Verde in the face of regional opposition.
Or the growing perception that streets are unsafe even as the incumbents continue to praise the Police Department.
"I do think council can do a better job, not just rubber stamping," said Pamella Settlegoode, a writer and educator running against council member Leslie Curran for the District 4 seat, which includes Crescent Lake.
The incumbents have the support of the business community and bigger campaign chests. But the challengers are betting there are enough dissatisfied residents to push them to victory.
Public safety issues have dominated the campaign trail.
Council members insist they've done all they can. In recent years, they called for a review of the department that found police officers could be better used, asked police Chief Chuck Harmon to become a stronger public leader and prodded the city staff to apply for federal stimulus dollars to hire five new police officers.
But in the end, Harmon answers to the mayor, not the City Council.
"The most important role is the ability for council members to work with the mayor," Curran said.
Council member Karl Nurse is running to be elected to his District 6 seat, which includes Bartlett Park. He said the Police Department was understaffed for too long.
"There are many cities that have been much more effective than we have in terms of identifying hot spots," he said during a recent candidate forum.
But in public meetings, he has praised Harmon for reaching out to troubled neighborhoods.
His challenger in the District 6 race, Vel Thompson, argues that the Police Department has neglected the city's poorest, black neighborhoods.
"When residents call for gunfire, it may take two or three calls before anyone shows up," said Thompson, a former city neighborhood manager who is now enrolled in beauty school. "What we are lacking, especially in the Midtown area, is a police presence."
Settlegoode wants the council to put pressure on the next mayor to dismiss Harmon.
Steve Kornell, a candidate for District 5, the only race without an incumbent, wants the council to have authority over the hiring of deputy mayors.
The challengers also contend that council members are controlled by local corporate interests.
As the former owner of a small car wash, Leonard Schmiege said city officials made it difficult for him to succeed.
"The problem was that the city always sided with large businesses over everybody else," said Schmiege, who is running against Danner. "With me on this council, that would no longer be true. My focus would be on the smallest of the businesses and not the BayWalks of the world."
Danner said he helped grow the Grand Central District Association and has hosted forums for arts leaders. He also pointed to his recent vote against Mayor Rick Baker's plan to privatize the sidewalk fronting BayWalk as evidence that he is not beholden to big business.
But challengers insist that City Hall has turned a deaf ear toward average residents.
Stephen Corsetti, a 23-year law enforcement veteran, is running against City Council member Jim Kennedy in District 2.
He criticized Kennedy and city staffers for hammering out a recent deal to install a new playground in the district without running it by neighborhood leaders.
"That's what we are there for and that's what should have happened," said Corsetti. "It's another example of backdoor dealing."
Kennedy said he instead ran the playground idea by parents and residents in the area.
Thompson said most council members didn't act quickly enough to help a hot dog vendor who recently received a $200 fine for illegally selling late night snacks. Council members refused to allow the vendor to temporarily sell dogs while they considered allowing such sales after 9 p.m.
Angela Rouson, a Pinellas County Housing Authority commissioner running against Kornell for Jamie Bennett's old seat, agreed.
"When it is a priority you should be able to expedite the process," she said.