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Was BayWalk vote a sign of new life in a weak St. Petersburg City Council?

When the queen of England sends a messenger to the House of Commons each year, the door is literally slammed in his face. He has to knock. This symbolizes the limit of the crown's authority.

Okay, here's something a little more local.

When the mayor of Tampa, Pam Iorio, shows up to address the Tampa City Council, she stands at the same lectern that the public uses. She does not have a throne up on the council's dais. Not even her own chair.

But in St. Petersburg, the first thing you notice at a City Council meeting is how it is dominated by the mayor and his top advisers. They sit up there, nameplates and chairs and all, literally and physically outflanking the council.

Left to its own devices, the Tampa City Council will at least rise up and clip a mayor's wings now and then.

Earlier this year, the Tampa council saucily whacked $2 million that the mayor had wanted to transform Zack Street downtown into something called an "Avenue of the Arts." They later compromised on $1 million.

Last year, the council balked at Iorio's plans to privatize various city jobs. And in 2006, in its biggest revolt, it rammed through a tax-rate cut and instead dipped into city reserves. A news story at the time called it "a stinging defiance" of Iorio.

St. Petersburg's council, in contrast, never grew muscles after the city switched from a city manager to a strong mayor in 1993. The council has remained a Mayberry-style, we're-all-friends-here rubber stamp with no resources, no policy staff and no independent attorney.

The council is totally reliant on the mayor for all information and direction. Sometimes council members disagree with the mayor, but rarely openly. As one member, Jim Kennedy, admitted this past week, major issues are hashed out in advance behind closed doors, in meetings between individual council members and Rick Baker or his staff, contrary to the spirit (at least the spirit) of the state's open-government laws.

Yet none of this explains why, last week, the St. Petersburg City Council handed Baker the biggest defeat of his tenure. The council rejected, on a 4-4 vote, the mayor's plan for turning over a public sidewalk to the downtown BayWalk shopping complex to shut down political protests and to keep out undesirable citizens.

I do not think the four dissenters (Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner, Wengay Newton, Herb Polson) were all motivated by a sudden love of lefty free speech, as much as by distaste for opening a can of worms. Neither do I think the main motive was to stand up to the mayor, although maybe they came to see it as a way to appear independent.

It would be no surprise to see Baker come back at BayWalk with some other plan, wheedling to get the council to go along. Nor would it be a surprise for the council to do it, relieved to get another chance to accommodate him.

And yet something new, different happened in St. Petersburg last week. Maybe the next mayor, whether Bill Foster or Kathleen Ford, will have that much less of a rubber stamp, and more of a partner-overseer, for a City Council. That would be good, extremely good.

• • •

Hey, I'm going to go weed, prune, bake pies, play poker and hang out with my dog for a week. See you.

Was BayWalk vote a sign of new life in a weak St. Petersburg City Council? 10/03/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 4, 2009 9:33am]
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