Sunday, June 24, 2018
Politics

St. Petersburg Council District 4: A question of experience

ST. PETERSBURG — One candidate in St. Petersburg's City Council District 4 clearly stands out with the broadest and best experience for leading the city.

That's what Carolyn Fries says.

That's what Darden Rice says.

But they have a disagreement about which person that is. Voters across the city will get to make their own decision Nov. 5.

Fries and Rice both offer impressive resumes and say the differences between them should help guide voters.

Rice has been in the public eye longer than Fries, with high-profile volunteer and paid work with such groups as the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, the PSTA bus service and others.

"I'm simply just better prepared and have a stronger background to step into City Council," she said.

She has been endorsed by the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce's political action committee and the city's police and firefighter unions. She has raised $110,225 in campaign contributions compared with $17,805 for Fries.

Rice has a degree in American Studies from Eckerd College, owns rental properties and enjoys working to restore homes. She has a partner and is 43.

Fries says one thing that would distinguish her as a council member is her engineering background, starting with an undergraduate degree from Purdue University and continuing with experience in large companies and local high-tech startups she helped found.

She notes that St. Petersburg is looking to develop high-wage and high-tech jobs. "As an engineer and a product designer, which I have been, I have experience in those areas and Darden has never done any of that."

Fries also has been Crescent Lake Neighborhood Association president and has been a Parent-Teacher-Student Association president. She is married, has four children and is 46.

Fries and Rice have stayed mostly cordial on the campaign trail, but they clashed sharply earlier this month at a University of South Florida St. Petersburg forum.

Rice declared herself "the most knowledgeable and committed person in my race on mass transit." She said she supports Greenlight Pinellas, which would use a 1-cent Pinellas County sales tax to generate money for light rail and expanded PSTA bus routes. She said this could be an economic development boon for the region. And she said Fries opposes the plan.

Fries clarified: Although she plans to vote against the 1-cent sales tax in a referendum next year, she does support bringing the matter to the voters.

Fries said that if Rice was so concerned with the PSTA, ''maybe she should show up for a few more board meetings; her attendance record is dismal." She said Rice had only attended "one meeting during the time she's been there."

Rice actually has attended 14 of the past 15 board meetings, PSTA officials said recently. Fries acknowledged in an interview that she didn't mean to say board meetings, she meant to refer to the PSTA's Planning Committee.

Minutes of those committee meetings indicate Rice attended three as a committee member, not just one as Fries said. But the minutes also show Rice was listed as absent for half a dozen others. Rice called it a miscommunication, saying she had announced that she needed to leave the committee and didn't realize until later that she was still included as a member.

In an interview, Fries also said Rice skirted the residency requirements of living in District 4. "The rules don't apply to her for some reason," Fries said.

Rice was living in a house that was rezoned out of District 4 and later said she was moving into a new house within the district. A previous Tampa Bay Times article raised doubts about whether Rice actually was living in the house she claimed.

Rice says she has now closed on a house in the Woodlawn neighborhood and will move in after the campaign. She said she is currently living in a rental in Crescent Heights. Both are in District 4, she said.

Both candidates oppose red light cameras. As for the city's struggles over how best to handle the Pier, Rice says the city needs much better "public engagement" with the citizens. Fries says it should be made clear that when architects prepare a new Pier design, it will be a starting point for more discussion, not something written in stone.

Both candidates are running for the seat that is being vacated by Leslie Curran, which represents a district of central and north St. Petersburg, with neighborhoods including Crescent Lake, Euclid Heights, Euclid-St. Paul's and Meadowlawn.

But voters citywide get to vote in the race.

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