While this has been a low-key campaign season for the St. Petersburg City Council, high-profile challenges face the city. They include replacing the Pier, coping with declining property tax revenues and ensuring that downtown remains vibrant. The city also must confront difficult regional issues, including the future of the countywide emergency medical system, efforts to assist the homeless, transit and a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. All of these issues will require council members to think more broadly about the region and St. Petersburg's role in building a consensus that benefits both the city and its neighbors. • Four of the eight council seats are on the Nov. 8 ballot in this citywide election, and the incumbent is seeking re-election in three of the seats.
CHARLIE GERDES, District 1
Charlie Gerdes, a 55-year-old lawyer with deep roots in the city, would bring new energy and a fresh eye to familiar issues. He finished a strong first among three candidates in the primary in District 1, anchored in the city's western neighborhoods, and he remains the best choice.
Gerdes has some experience in dealing with two of the city's highest-profile issues. He has served as a board member and president of A Brighter Day of Pinellas County, which works with homeless families. He also was on the ABC Coalition, which studied options for a new baseball stadium. He understands the complexities of both subjects, and he offers commonsense approaches that reflect a regional view which still protects St. Petersburg's interests. For example, Gerdes would let the Rays look further outside the city limits at potential stadium sites while continuing to promote the city as the best location for a new home.
This is Gerdes' first campaign for City Council, although he unsuccessfully ran for a state House seat in 2006. His personal finances, including back taxes owed to the IRS, are messy but not disqualifying. Gerdes has smart ideas for moving St. Petersburg forward without losing its history. He supports the competition for a new Pier that would complement businesses along the bayfront. He appreciates the city's arts scene and would look for ways to offer more support. He also pledges to pursue better mass transit and more clean-energy initiatives.
Robert Kersteen, a 74-year-old retired telephone company executive, served on the City Council from 1995 to 2000. His previous tenure was unimpressive and marked by conflicts of interest involving his then-employer. While Kersteen and Gerdes generally agree on many issues, Kersteen is focused more on internal city budget issues and less on the big picture. He has not made a strong argument for returning to the council.
The winner of this race will succeed Herb Polson, who did not seek re-election. For St. Petersburg City Council District 1, the St. Petersburg Times recommends Charlie Gerdes.
BILL DUDLEY, District 3
Bill Dudley, a popular retired teacher and coach at Northeast High School, influenced thousands of kids over his career. That has given him a wide base of support during his first term on the City Council and he can build on his experience in a second term representing District 3, which includes Northeast neighborhoods.
Dudley, 67, has not been a leader on the council, but he has been a good listener and accessible to residents. His priorities are predictable but reasonable: Support law enforcement and the construction of a new police headquarters; continue to look for ways to consolidate services and reduce spending; and support successful efforts in helping the homeless such as Safe Harbor.
At times, Dudley has been too deferential to Mayor Bill Foster, particularly when it comes to the mayor's hard-line stance with the Tampa Bay Rays over the stadium issue. He also voted to approve Foster's one-sided settlement with Progress Energy, which let the utility off the hook on most of its uncollected fees and bills. But he has opposed Foster on some issues, such as the mayor's rejected plan to close several city pools.
Dudley does not shy away from difficult votes. He voted for a reasonable plan to allow six digital billboards along the interstate in return for removing 80 conventional billboards, which failed. In 2009, he voted to cede control of a portion of the public sidewalk to BayWalk in an effort to make it more attractive to new owners. And in 2008, he was one of only two council members to vote against a new dog park that cost more than $100,000.
Brent Hatley, 40, is a first-time candidate and is executive producer of the Bubba Radio Network, a nationally syndicated program. He is a strong supporter of green energy and promises to cut red tape for business owners. Hatley says he will be more vocal in pushing for negotiations with the Rays over the stadium issue than Dudley and opposes red-light cameras, which Dudley supported. But Hatley has a more general grasp of the issues and lacks Dudley's range of contacts in the city.
For St. Petersburg City Council District 3, the St. Petersburg Times recommends Bill Dudley.
STEVE KORNELL, District 5
Steve Kornell, a Pinellas County schools social worker, won this seat in a 2009 special election. His opponent in this race dropped out in August due to a family medical issue, so voters will choose between Kornell or a "new election." Kornell has been a solid council member and deserves a full term.
Kornell, 45, has a solid grasp of city issues and a refreshing commitment to open government. He helped ensure that more committee meetings are televised and pushed to allow the public to address the council before a final vote on an issue, not after.
Kornell is an able neighborhood facilitator for District 5, which covers the city's southernmost neighborhoods. He has used his expertise in social work to keep a spotlight on tackling the root causes of juvenile delinquency. He has been an independent voice in raising issues — such as the proliferation of illegal guns on St. Petersburg's streets — that other council members do not.
There is no need for another election. For St. Petersburg City Council District 5, the St. Petersburg Times recommends Steve Kornell.
WENGAY "NEWT" NEWTON, District 7
Four years ago, Wengay Newton defeated Gershom Faulkner when they were fresh candidates for this mid-city seat. But Newton now has experience and is best positioned to serve this district for the next four years.
Newton, a 48-year-old small business owner and native of the city, is often the lone "no" vote on the council. He has irritated other council members with his frequent questions of city staff, and he and Mayor Bill Foster have butted heads. He objected to the city's plans for replacing the Pier without a voter referendum, the implementation of red-light cameras and the decision on vacating a portion of the sidewalk in front of BayWalk.
But Newton's opposition serves as a check on the majority, and his objections can be on the mark. He raised questions about why City Hall still provides generous car allowances for dozens of employees in these tough fiscal times. He supports requiring lobbyist registration, which the city needs. And he reminds everyone that preventing juvenile crime through youth programming will ultimately pay larger dividends for the city.
Faulkner, 40, a onetime U.S. Marine sergeant and former aide to U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, supports replacement of the Pier and the installation of red-light cameras. And unlike Newton, he correctly thinks it is premature for the city to consider pulling out of Pinellas County's consolidated emergency medical services. But Faulkner's performance on the campaign trail has been lackluster, and he fails to make a convincing case that voters should replace Newton.
For St. Petersburg City Council District 7, the St. Petersburg Times recommends Wengay Newton.