When St. Petersburg voters approved a strong mayor form of government more than two decades ago, their intentions were clear. City Council members are not to interfere with the mayor's hiring decisions. Yet now council members want to rush a change onto the November ballot that would let them give their opinions about the mayor's key hires because they are miffed about their inability to influence the selection of the new police chief. This is not the time or the way to alter the balance of power in City Hall and undermine the mayor's authority.
It is ironic that the council's pursuit of a change to the City Charter comes after Mayor Rick Kriseman invited members to meet his top finalists for police chief and share their opinions with him privately. After council members hinted about their preferences in a public meeting and indicated they wanted to express their opinions to constituents, City Attorney John Wolfe read aloud this section of the charter: "Neither the Council nor any of its committees or any of its members, individually or collectively, shall direct or request the appointment of anyone to, or removal from, office by the mayor or any of the mayor's subordinates, or in any manner, directly or indirectly, take part in the appointment or removal of any officer or employee."
Council member Karl Nurse said the council should ask voters to change the charter so they can speak their minds next time. At the following meeting, Nurse was absent but his colleagues expanded the list of mayoral appointees they wanted to comment on. The council will hold a public hearing Thursday on an ordinance setting the charter referendum for Nov. 4 and approving the ballot question.
The council's frustration with being muzzled is understandable, especially since the city attorney interprets the charter to prohibit council members from expressing their personal opinions to anyone, even friends or constituents. That seems to be an extreme interpretation — council members do not give up their free speech rights when elected.
However, St. Petersburg voters clearly wanted the mayor to hire and fire city employees without outside pressure. Ideally, such a significant change would be vetted first by a Charter Review Commission, which could explore how other strong-mayor cities handle the issue. Tampa's charter requires the mayor, soon after taking office, to submit a list of senior managers to the council, which has a limited time to confirm or reject the appointments. At least that is a clearer approach than what is on the table in St. Petersburg.
Council members' rush to the ballot is motivated by their frustration over their lack of influence in selecting the police chief, despite Kriseman's efforts to involve them. The situation may not come up again soon. It would be foolish to rush a poorly worded change onto the November ballot that could confuse voters and undermine the reason for having a strong mayor in the first place.