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In St. Petersburg, pre-primary campaigning by city employees sparks debate

ST. PETERSBURG — Members of a small constituency with a unique interest in the mayoral election have begun to flex their political muscle.

Hint: The winner will be their new boss.

Intent on having a say on the election of St. Petersburg’s next chief executive, a growing number of City Hall workers are quietly attending fundraisers, political forums and campaign meet and greets.

A fistful of employees donated to candidates during the first major reporting cycle that ended in March.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon said he will encourage his employees to get involved, and the firefighters union is considering scheduling candidate interviews as part of its endorsement process.

For the most part, the city’s rank and file are no strangers to political maneuvering. But the budding loyalties to individual campaigns so many months before the Sept. 1 primary have sparked debate about the ethics of public servants moonlighting as campaign operatives — and the potential consequences.

Mayor Rick Baker said the city does not prohibit its workers from getting involved in politics, as long as it is after hours and they aren’t using their official authority to influence other voters.

“They have their right to do that,” said Baker, whose 2005 bid for re-election benefited from the contributions and endorsements of at least a dozen City Hall employees.

Among the most notable contributors this election cycle so far are Rhonda Abbott, the city’s social services manager, and Gretchen Tenbroke, a recreation manager. Both gave $25 to City Council member Jamie Bennett, who is running for mayor. Abbott, who works closely with Bennett on homeless issues, also attended a recent fundraiser hosted by the candidate.

Critics worry that any political activity could breed complaints of favoritism or even retribution.

City Council member Herb Polson, a former city employee, said he declined to publicly participate in city elections during his years as the city’s lobbyist because he wanted to avoid any perceived conflicts.

“If you are out there supporting a candidate that doesn’t win, someone could say, ‘Well, you didn’t support me. Should I have you in my administration?’?” he said.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said he discourages his employees from getting involved in city elections.

“It just causes conflict down the road,” he said. “It is inappropriate and it puts them in a bad position no matter who wins or loses.”

The International Council of Managers Association, a body of government administrators, requires its members to refrain from any political activity that could undermine public confidence.

“We feel it impairs a manager’s ability to do their job,” said Michele Frisby, the council’s spokeswoman. “Even if the manager or individual we are talking about isn’t necessarily beholden to that specific elected official, it’s going to be hard for the public to understand that distinction.”

Employee advocates, however, argue that just because someone collects a paycheck from City Hall doesn’t mean he or she shouldn’t have a say in who should govern the city.

“We can’t make them not get involved in politics,” said Winthrop Newton, president of the city’s firefighters union. “Hopefully you do your homework and are on the right side.”

What’s more, city employees, with their intimate knowledge of policy and government, can help the public by endorsing a worthwhile candidate, Newton said. “In the end, you do want a happy boss but more important than the boss being happy is that the public is being looked out for,” he said.

In 2005, the police chief officially gave his support to Baker.

Harmon said he could endorse a mayoral candidate this time around, but he likely won’t until after the primary.

“More than half of my department lives in this city and I do kind of encourage them to get involved in the process, on their own time of course,” he said.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

About the race

Mayor: Nine candidates have filed paperwork to run for St. Petersburg mayor, including: Jamie Bennett, Paul Congemi, Kathleen Ford, Bill Foster, Deveron Gibbons, Alex Haak, Sharon Russ, Scott Wagman and Larry Williams.

Council: There are five council seats up for grabs. So far, nine candidates have said they plan to run. The District 5 seat, being vacated by Jamie Bennett, has drawn the most interest because there is no incumbent in that race.

Key dates: The primary is Sept. 1. The general election is Nov. 3.

On the Web

Read more about the mayoral candidates and where they stand on the issues at tampabay.com/mayor.

In St. Petersburg, pre-primary campaigning by city employees sparks debate 05/19/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 24, 2009 6:45pm]
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