St. Petersburg has survived the worst of the recession. Downtown is vibrant, development is gradually coming back and the crime rate continues to drop. City government is leaner, but services generally have avoided drastic cuts. But there are many challenges ahead, including resolving stalemates on a new Pier and Tampa Bay Rays stadium negotiations, building a new police headquarters and crafting a new master plan for the downtown waterfront. There are still stubborn pockets of poverty and a broader homelessness issue. And there remains a need to work regionally to provide better transit, improve public schools and reduce costs in the countywide emergency medical system. The next St. Petersburg City Council is going to have its hands full.
Four of the eight council seats are on the Nov. 5 ballot, including two held by incumbents seeking re-election. Candidates run from geographic districts, but in the general election all races are decided by voters citywide.
James R. "Jim" Kennedy Jr. | District 2
The challenger in the race to represent the city's northernmost district has already bested the incumbent once — indirectly. Lorraine Margeson helped push the August referendum that stopped the new pier project, which incumbent Jim Kennedy supported. But serving on the City Council requires far more than focusing on a single issue, and Kennedy has the broader reach.
Kennedy, 56, was appointed to the council in 2007 after the death of the incumbent and was elected to a four-year term in 2009. The attorney remains the council member best versed in budget issues, is among the best prepared for council votes and routinely asks smart questions. Kennedy was alone in voting against a property tax rate increase last year that was too high, expressing concern the city's tax rate was higher than surrounding communities. He understands the importance of transportation to the city's future, from mass transit's potential to bring jobs to inner-city neighborhoods to improvements on Gandy Boulevard in his district. He wants a national search for the next police chief, and he would like to reverse the city's chase policy.
Kennedy has sometimes disappointed. He too often follows Mayor Bill Foster's lead, backing the mayor's failed fire fee and red light cameras. He also should be more flexible in how he views negotiating with the Tampa Bay Rays over the stadium issue. But Kennedy is a thoughtful council member, and he has served his district well by pushing for a new park where an elementary school once stood.
Margeson, 56, has an impressive record in environmental activism and has been an enthusiastic advocate on other issues. But she also says the inverted pyramid can be refurbished in the city's limited budget, even though that is cost-prohibitive. And she wants to hire more police officers even though the crime rate is down. To her credit, she supports the transit referendum and opposes red light cameras.
Kennedy has the broader experience and better overall understanding of the key issues facing the city. For St. Petersburg City Council District 2, the Tampa Bay Times recommends James R. "Jim" Kennedy Jr.
Darden Rice | District 4
A hard-fought four-way primary in this district north of downtown produced two qualified candidates to succeed council member Leslie Curran, who is term-limited. Darden Rice and Carolyn Fries have each demonstrated a commitment to the community and an appreciation for local government. Rice, a communications consultant with an extensive resume of civic engagement, is better prepared to fill the void left by Curran.
Rice, 43, spent part of her childhood in St. Petersburg and then returned as an Eckerd College student. She lost races for City Council eight years ago and for the Pinellas County Commission in 2008, but she has continued to contribute in significant ways. She recently served as the city's citizen representative to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board and anticipates taking a leadership role in advocating 2014 transit referendum.
Rice has experience in city policy and supports universal curbside recycling. She is open-minded on what comes next for the Rays stadium, anticipates building a new pier and has ideas for what City Hall can do to improve economic conditions in Midtown. She served on the most recent Charter Review Commission and was a founder of the People's Budget Review, a grass-roots group that has brought refreshing scrutiny to how the city prioritizes spending. She is a past president of the St. Petersburg League of Women Voters.
Fries, 46, an engineer and technology entrepreneur, offers a business owner's sensibilities and has done an impressive job in her first run for public office in learning about city operations beyond what she was familiar with as a former president of Crescent Lake Neighborhood Association. She says public safety is her top priority and wants to build the new police headquarters. But she hasn't wholly committed to mass transit, and Rice has a broader understanding of the council and the city's challenges.
For St. Petersburg City Council District 4, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Darden Rice.
Karl Nurse | District 6
Five years go, after two failed bids for office, Karl Nurse was appointed to the council to represent this diverse southeast district. The small business owner hasn't stepped off the gas since, particularly in responding to the recent recession. He has pushed to rehabilitate abandoned properties and force financial institutions to take care of foreclosed properties, and has promoted energy-efficiency efforts to save the city money.
All those efforts demonstrate Nurse's ability to convert ideas into action, something not always easy in City Hall. He has ideas going forward about how to improve the city's economic development shortcomings, including in Midtown, and is right on regional issues — including talking to the Rays and supporting the 2014 countywide transit referendum.
Nurse, 59, was a disappointment in reversing his support for a new pier and in backing Foster's failed plan for a regressive fire fee. He also should work on the impatience he frequently displays in council meetings with his fellow members. But Nurse remains by far the most qualified candidate in this race, and his willingness to look long-term and try new ideas continues to set him apart on the City Council.
Sharon Russ, 52, has run for office before. At community forums, she has repeatedly appeared uninformed about significant city issues and unprepared for the job. She is not a viable option.
For St. Petersburg City Council District 6, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Karl Nurse.
Amy Foster | District 8
A four-way primary for this open seat ended with the two most qualified candidates vying to replace term-limited council member Jeff Danner. Amy Foster, a nonprofit executive whose career has focused on youth, is the better choice to represent this district west of downtown. She would be a breath of fresh air on the council.
Foster, 36, is a Louisiana native who moved to St. Petersburg a decade ago to work with the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida. She now works from her home in the Kenwood neighborhood for a Seattle-based nonprofit focused on connecting girls with science, math and technology. Her career working with young people, and by extension their families, informs a thoughtful and holistic view of how to improve the community. She already has well-researched ideas about addressing the high number of police calls to transient motels on 34th Street — ideas that shouldn't hurt good proprietors or the families who rely on them for housing.
Foster brings a clear eye to issues such as the need to improve mass transit, negotiate with the Rays over a new stadium, design a new pier, and enhance the city's response to homelessness — from finding more affordable housing for families to addressing vagrancy in downtown's Williams Park.
Steve Galvin, 55, a music engineer, moved here eight years ago and has invested in the community. He has enthusiasm and creative ideas, but a failure to disclose a child support situation in California early in the campaign raises questions about his judgment.
For St. Petersburg City Council District 8, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Amy Foster.