St. Petersburg city council primary is a pricey project

ST. PETERSBURG — Democracy doesn't come cheap.

Tuesday's City Council primary, in an off-election year, will cost the city $150,000. The last time the city had a primary in an off-year, 11 percent of voters showed up. If that holds Tuesday, the cost per vote will be $67.

"The right to vote is very important," said City Clerk Eva Andujar. "But I will say it's getting expensive."

The race for the District 1 council seat is the lone item on the ballot. Even though all council districts are elected citywide, the primaries are open only to district voters.

That means only the 20,155 registered voters who live in the city's western and most suburban district are eligible to cast ballots for one of three candidates: Charles Gerdes, 54, a lawyer; Robert Kersteen, 74, a retired executive for GTE Mobilnet; and Joshua Shulman, 35, a financial planner.

As of Friday, 1,972 residents had mailed in ballots. That means turnout is already 9.72 percent.

Question is: Who's left to vote Tuesday? To reach the 2007 turnout, only 245 people would need to vote — or just 20 people every hour the polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Spread across eight polling locations for the district's 14 precincts, turnout may appear nonexistent.

"We'll be out there waving signs," said Kersteen, who served on the council from 1995 to 2001. "But has the battle already been decided? It could be."

The city is paying the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office to staff the primary.

"We have to prepare for it like we do for every election," said Nancy Whitlock, a spokeswoman for the office. "We don't try to predict what the turnout will be."

Each precinct clerk has been given a cell phone to use, and 69 poll workers are set to work Tuesday, Whitlock said.

Gerdes said he expects about 1,000 people to vote Tuesday.

"I'm optimistic about turnout," he said. "I'm old-fashioned in that I like to go and vote on Election Day. I've talked to a lot of people who feel the same way I do, who like to get that sticker. So I'm hoping we'll get around 18 percent turnout."

Shulman, who's running in his first race, said he, too, thinks people will vote at a higher rate than in the 2007 primary.

"There's more interest than we originally anticipated," Shulman said. "That's because we don't have an incumbent running, so a lot of people are saying that this is the first real opportunity where they can really help choose someone."

The three candidates agree on many big issues, such as supporting the construction of a new police station and financing all public safety budget needs. None supported digital billboards in a deal recently rejected by the City Council. All want to stop paying car allowances for top administrators and managers, given the city's deficit. All favor same-sex domestic partner benefits for firefighters. They each want to end the city's stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays over a new stadium. All support the city's recent treatment of homeless people.

Kersteen stresses his skill as a "consensus builder" who has the corporate experience necessary to cut costs in city government, especially at the top. He opposes new revenue, if it means raising the property tax rate.

Shulman says his financial background helps him understand better than his opponents that the city can't continue to keep cutting, if it wants to end a seemingly endless cycle of budget woes. He favors considering a hike in the property tax rate as a way to increase revenue, while correctly pointing out it doesn't mean city tax bills will be higher.

Gerdes said he'll be the most accessible council member ever. He might need to field a few angry phone calls about red light cameras. Unlike Kersteen and Shulman, he supports them as a way to keep the streets safer from red-light runners.

The top two finishers will square off in the Nov. 8 general election, which also will decide three other council races that drew just two candidates each. And that doesn't come cheap, either. The city already has paid the county elections office $300,000 to staff it.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

St. Petersburg city council primary is a pricey project 08/28/11 [Last modified: Monday, August 29, 2011 12:38am]

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