The game of hide-and-seek that St. Petersburg's city government has played with $12.7-million is reprehensible, and today the public will see whether elected City Council members care.
The council is being asked by its newest member, neighborhood activist Karl Nurse, to talk about the surreptitious nature of its decision on June 19 to grant $12.7-million in tax-supported incentives to electronics manufacturer Jabil Corp. The council slid the item on the agenda hours before the meeting under an assumed name, "Project Extreme," and offered no debate.
Millions of public tax dollars were directed to a single private, for-profit company, and not a word was uttered. Worse, council members and city staff are now circling the wagons around City Hall. They say they were just following a state law granting confidentiality to economic development projects, even though the law does not include any local elected officials.
The council excuses bespeak arrogance. Leslie Curran doesn't want to be trifled. "At some point," she said, "you have to have some faith in the staff." Jeff Danner turns to sophistry. "I can't take everything to referendum," he said, as though that were the only alternative. Bill Dudley, the self-professed budget hawk and political maverick, may be the most pitiable. Last fall, Dudley said he won election because: "I'm not afraid to speak up. … I think people like that about me." After voting for millions to a company he couldn't name, Dudley could only parrot fragments of information: "They said the company was going to move to California."
How will council members respond today? Will they again try to blame the state law or the newspaper? Will they pretend that this tax money is somehow free, that it can be obligated to private companies without the need for justification? Will they comprehend that secrecy is poison to public trust?