Seven amendments to the City Charter and one referendum question await St. Petersburg voters on the Nov. 8 ballot. The first two are offered by the City Council. The rest were placed on the ballot by the once-a-decade citizen Charter Review Commission.
No. 1: Port Leases
This measure would amend the City Charter to allow private entities to obtain up to 25-year leases at the Port of St. Petersburg upon approval of six of the eight members of the council. The council currently can only offer 10-year leases at the port.
City officials want to build more slips at the small port in downtown St. Petersburg to accommodate additional marine research vessels and to draw large yachts. But government funding has been elusive, causing the council and Mayor Bill Foster to seek private investment.
Private companies who responded last year to the city's request for proposals said the 10-year lease limit was too short to recoup an investment that could reach $10 million. But they were also less than encouraging about the city's ability to attract high-end yachts.
Also, the broad language of the amendment is troublesome. While current city leaders are thinking research vessels, there is nothing in the amendment that would prevent future councils from leasing the property for other endeavors that may be less desirable. The city needs to revitalize the port, but it should bring voters a specific plan, such as happened with the relocation of the Dalí Museum in 2004.
On No. 1, the Times recommends voting no.
No. 2: Tax exemptions for business
Voter approval of this referendum is required to authorize the City Council to grant, on a case-by-case basis, property tax breaks to businesses that expand or relocate in St. Petersburg and add full-time jobs. Such tax breaks can be a slippery slope and should only be proffered after significant scrutiny. But the measure levels the playing field with Tampa and Hillsborough County.
On No. 2, the Times recommends voting yes.
No. 3: waterfront master plan
This charter amendment would require the City Council to develop a master plan for the downtown waterfront no later than July 1, 2015. Such a plan would likely detail exactly what kind of development, transportation and amenities the city desires.
The Charter Review Commission placed this measure on the ballot after more prescriptive measures aimed at limiting waterfront development failed to gain support. Advocates say such master plans establish a common vision for the future. But the City Charter is already fairly prescriptive and limits development on the waterfront without voter approval. This plan might have merit for establishing transportation and other goals, but the council could accomplish that without a charter amendment.
On No. 3, the Times recommends voting no.
No. 4: redistricting committee
This charter amendment would transfer authority for drawing the City Council's districts from the council to a citizens panel made up of appointees by the mayor and each council member. It is aimed at countering the inherent conflict of interest whenever elected officials draw the lines for themselves. But removing the process one step won't accomplish that. It could make the process even less transparent as elected officials would have plausible deniability when their appointee to the committee is the one pushing a change that benefits re-election chances.
On No. 4, the Times recommends voting no.
No. 5: City management evaluations
This charter amendment would fix an overly prescriptive requirement that the City Council commission city management evaluations every two years — regardless of whether council members feel they are warranted. Under this change, the council could order such evaluations at any time but would not be required to do so on a certain timetable.
On No. 5, the Times recommends voting yes.
No. 6: Require hearings on budget changes
This charter amendment would require the City Council to hold public hearings any time the city budget is amended to transfer money between accounts or at the end of the year when the bottom line is reconciled. This is a good open-government requirement.
On No. 6, the Times recommends voting yes.
No. 7: Mayor must propose balanced budget
This charter amendment would require the mayor to propose a balanced budget to the City Council where expenditures match receipts. While Mayor Bill Foster has done so, that's not always been the case, frustrating council members and delaying serious budget negotiations. This is a common sense requirement.
On No. 7, the Times recommends voting yes.
No. 8:Fix glitches in charter
This charter amendment, besides fixing typos and other glitches, spells out exactly when the majority of the City Council can call a special meeting.
On No. 8, the Times recommends voting yes.