ST. PETERSBURG — For hire: Florida's fourth-largest city is seeking a full-time mayor and four part-time council members. Successful candidates must campaign vigorously, balance a budget in trying economic times and avoid scandal. No experience required.
Join the pack.
With the city's primary eight months away, a slew of mayoral and council candidates have already emerged in what promises to be a fiercely competitive election season.
The next mayor and City Council will make decisions that will touch local parks, parades, schools, businesses, shelters, museums and households. The struggling economy means officials must increase taxes or cut services to balance the $549-million budget. If they go the latter route, everything from employee benefits to library hours to arts funding could wind up on the chopping block.
"People don't realize that the council and the mayor are the most important election that they will ever be involved in," said former council member Earnest Williams. "They impact you directly. It's where the rubber meets the road."
A series of pressing issues will await the new leaders.
Where will the Tampa Bay Rays proposed stadium go and who will pay for it?
How do you combat crime with fewer resources?
What can be done to keep downtown thriving as business dries up?
Long before anyone is sworn in, candidates will be bombarded with questions like these and how they plan to make St. Petersburg better.
"The downtown business interests have been very satisfied over the past 15 years in terms of the development of St. Petersburg and will want to make sure at the very least that that continues," said Darryl Paulson, a professor of government and Florida politics at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Mayor Rick Baker's unfinished programs will likely hang over his successor.
"The Midtown area is going to be a hot topic," said council member Wengay Newton. "All this stuff about a seamless community is great, but the next mayor really needs to step up and do that."
The St. Petersburg mayor is one of the most influential government jobs in the Tampa Bay area. It comes with many perks, like free Tampa Bay Rays tickets, ample airtime on the city's government channel and a spacious downtown office. Baker will earn $162,314 this year, and may be up for a raise in October.
Six candidates already have emerged. The diverse group consists of council member Jamie Bennett; former council member Bill Foster; former builder Paul Congemi; real estate broker Scott Wagman; business executive Deveron Gibbons; and minister Sharon Russ. County Commissioner Ken Welch and state Rep. Rick Kriseman also are considering running.
But despite some candidates' deep pockets, name recognition or political connections, the race appears to be wide open.
"I wouldn't declare anyone the front-runner," said Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. "People are curious. They are asking questions about who is going to run, but I do feel it is still very early."
At least four council seats will be up for election.
Incumbents Karl Nurse, Jeff Danner, Leslie Curran and James Kennedy all plan to seek re-election.
Nurse, who was appointed in April after Williams vacated the post to make a failed bid for the Legislature, could face the fiercest re-election bid. Some black leaders, still peeved by the council's decision to appoint a white man to serve the predominately black district, are rallying to find a suitable opponent.
A fifth council seat also could be in play.
Bennett, whose term expires in 2012, has asked city attorney John Wolfe to help him bypass the council appointment process and get the District 5 seat on the ballot. Bennett must resign to run for mayor, but he doesn't want to resign before he has to or allow his council colleagues to appoint his successor. Former council member Larry Williams did the same thing when he ran for mayor in 2001.
Council members make $41,120 and must rely on the mayor's staff to get things done.
City officials will broadcast debates between the candidates for the first time this year, but for most political hopefuls, the battle will be won at neighborhood picnics, church socials and community forums across the city.
"Overall, voters want to see competency and a vision," said Darden Rice, a political consultant who will serve on Nurse's campaign. "It's hard to see right now who is going to have the campaign that is smart enough and fast enough to get their message out. A good grass roots campaign can offset a lot of establishment-like apple carts."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.