ST. PETERSBURG — Residents of Bayfront Tower Condos peppered City Council candidates Tuesday night with questions about noise ordinances, road repairs and the multi-million-dollar plan to rebuild the pier.
The candidates for Districts 2, 4 and 6 gathered at Bayfront Tower for a forum sponsored by the St. Petersburg Downtown Residents Association. Mayor Rick Kriseman and his challenger, former Mayor Rick Baker, also addressed the crowd. District 4 incumbent Darden Rice did not attend.
Candidates spoke for about five minutes each and fielded questions for another three minutes. Much of the interest focused on downtown and the District 6 candidates vying to represent it, hitting subjects such as the sewage system and mass transit. But concern with enforcement of the city’s noise ordinances dominated much of the discussion.
Gina Driscoll, 46, who is president of the downtown Neighborhood Association, suggested that code enforcement, not local police, should be the ones dealing with noise infractions. As a sales and marketing manager for Hampton Inn Suites downtown, Driscoll said she’s in the business of providing people with a good night’s sleep and that the penalties for violations need to be more harsh.
Driscoll also expressed concern with the city’s infrastructure, moving beyond sewage and also citing issues with streets and sidewalks that need to be repaired.
"And of course, there’s the smart development that needs to happen," she said. "I kind of question it, as I’m sure you do. Are we growing too fast? Are we growing too tall?"
Justin Bean, 30, a partner in his family’s Web-based packaging company in the city’s downtown, spoke about the issue of homelessness in Williams Park. Bean, a District 6 candidate who started a nonprofit partnership aimed at attracting more activities to downtown’s Williams Park, said the best way to rehabilitate the park is to provide affordable housing while also planning community events there, such as movies and festivals.
"When I see a need, I don’t want to wait for someone else to deal with it," Bean said. "I want to take it head on. … I saw a historic park just being taken advantage of."
Bean also served on the pier selection committee, which suggested the current architect. However, he criticized the planners for going with two companies instead of the recommended one, which he said has increased cost and caused delay.
While much of the focus from the condo residents was on District 6, they also heard from other candidates, including Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless who are vying to represent District 2.
Gabbard, 41, a Realtor, said she wants help the city grow in a smart way while spreading vibrancy and development through not just downtown but also the Gateway and Gandy areas, which District 2 represents. She stressed, though, that she is not a proponent of putting any more money into the pier.
When it comes to noise ordinances, the forum’s most popular topic, Gabbard said it was important to make sure code enforcers were fining the owner of the establishment producing the ruckus, not just the manager on duty.
She also spoke proudly of her 6-year-old son, and bringing her perspective as a mother to the City Council.
"The voice of someone not only running a business but raising a child, is one that’s been underserved on the council for a long time," she said.
Harless, 32, a Bank of the Ozarks manager, said he cares about the "nuts and bolts of city government," including infrastructure, finances and property taxes. He criticized the City Council for spending a million dollars to get public input on the pier and then not following those suggestions. He’d like to see costs better controlled for the reconstruction while also protecting the waterfront.
In terms of refining the city budget process, he praised council member Karl Nurse’s initiative to pay consultants to teach city employees how to do assessments instead of constantly farming out that business to the more expensive consultants.
"That’s millions and millions of dollars every year," Harless said. "We pay a lot of money, especially on engineering. The more we focus on the efficiencies of government, the better we do."
University of South Florida St. Petersburg student Jerick Johnston, 21, was the lone candidate present for District 4. He identified the city’s troubled sewage system as the most pressing issue in the next for years, and said he would support allocating more money for repairs and reopening the Albert Whitted sewage plant.
Johnston supports shifting monitoring of noise ordinance infractions to code enforcement.
"I do believe on weekend nights our officers have other things they could be doing to promote safety in the community," Johnston said.
Both mayoral candidates made their appearances in the beginning of the evening before leaving for other events.
Baker criticized the pier reconstruction plan for lack of vision and over-spending. He also categorized the decision to close Albert Whitted sewage plant as a catastrophe and one of the worst political decisions in 20 years.
Mayor Kriseman fielded questions about mass transit and improving parking options downtown. Kriseman, who was heavily involved in Greenlight Pinellas (the 2014 failed attempt to bring light rail to the county), chastised Baker for being "invisible" during that process.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.