When the way a city draws its political boundaries threatens the qualification of well-intended, legitimate candidates, the process is flawed and should be fixed. That's the message the St. Petersburg City Council should take from the city's latest redistricting process, which has left three council candidates facing questions about residency requirements. The council should fix this before the next round of redistricting, and this time all three candidates should be allowed to remain on the ballot.
The city charter requires a council candidate to live in a district for at least 12 months before the primary. But this year, redistricting took effect in March, only five months before the Aug. 27 primary.
Two candidates who knew they were in danger of being drawn out of District 4 — David McKalip and Darden Rice — tried to comply with the rules. Both rented homes within the new District 4 before the redistricting took effect.
In the case of Lorraine Margeson, the redrawn district lines around her home of the past 12 years moved her from District 3 to District 2. She filed last week to challenge council member Jim Kennedy in District 2. But she won't have technically lived in District 2 for 12 months since part of the time her address was part of District 3. Got that?
Each candidate has acted in good faith without intending to flout the residency rule and should be allowed to run. Chief assistant city attorney Mark Winn has issued two legal memos suggesting that case law is sparse on these questions. But if an outside challenge makes it to court, judges generally interpret residency rules leniently and may leave discretion to local governments. If that happens, the trio should be allowed to remain on the ballot.
Going forward, the city charter should be fixed. Ideally, the Charter Review Commission could have foreseen this problem in 2011 and recommended pre-emptive changes. But it didn't. Now the City Council should place a charter revision on the ballot during a general election.
There are several options for fixing the problem, from simply requiring that district lines be established at least 15 months prior to a primary to relaxing residency requirements in redistricting years. The council could also do as the Legislature does and in redistricting years place all council seats on the ballot. That would eliminate a conflict that became evident in the recent redistricting when efforts were made to ensure incumbent council members stayed in their home districts to finish serving their terms.
St. Petersburg benefits when more citizens get involved in local politics and run for office. Nonsensical rules that threaten such participation need to be eliminated.
This editorial has been revised to reflect the following correction: St. Petersburg City Council candidate Darden Rice currently lives in a rented house in District 4. An editorial published Tuesday was incorrect.