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St. Petersburg’s 7 City Charter amendments and referendum question, explained

The amendments range from a new process for redistricting and timeline for charter review, to focusing and funding equity and creating a preamble for the City Charter.
The scene before the polls open for the St. Petersburg Primary Election at Lake Vista Recreation Center, 1401 62nd Ave S, on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
The scene before the polls open for the St. Petersburg Primary Election at Lake Vista Recreation Center, 1401 62nd Ave S, on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 29, 2021|Updated Nov. 3, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — Voters will decide Tuesday who the next mayor will be and elect three (or maybe four) new members to the City Council.

But down ballot, there are seven proposed City Charter amendments. Don’t skip these — they’re the result of a process that takes place every 10 years. A commission of nine is appointed by each of the eight City Council members plus the mayor, and they review the City Charter and propose amendments. There’s also a referendum renewal proposed by City Hall.

We’ve reported on the most talked-about amendment on the ballot: The first question, which would change the way the City Council is elected. It would eliminate citywide elections and make the council eight single-member districts.

Related: UPDATE: Here’s how St. Petersburg voted on 7 City Charter amendments

But the other amendments focus heavily on equity, a priority set by the commission from the outset. They could also require the Charter Review Commission to meet every eight years instead of 10 and set tighter standards for serving on the redistricting commission. One amendment calls for a preamble in the City Charter.

There is active opposition to the amendments — by a Charter Review Commission member. Serving at the appointment of council member and mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon, Ed Carlson is campaigning for no votes on each of the amendments.

“The more that I read it and studied it and learned it the more I became opposed to them,” Carlson said. “There were some good things we could do for the citizens of St. Petersburg, but eventually I didn’t see anything that we did that was necessary.”

Carlson is working with a political action committee called St. Pete Cares that created a website called badforstpete.com, pushing for “no” votes on every amendment question.

The committee’s website lays out the ballot language and its position on why it should be voted down.

“The charter is the simple bare bones constitution of the city and not a place for a lot of political fluff,” Carlson said.

There was some drama on the commission. Carlson ran for Blackmon’s vacated District 1 seat on City Council; other commission members felt that was inappropriate. The commission took a vote of no confidence in Carlson, who kept serving. None of Carlson’s ideas, including having an independent facilitator oversee the charter review, which is how it’s done in Tampa, or protecting the city’s lakes, got through.

Lars Hafner, chair of the commission who was appointed by Mayor Rick Kriseman, said that’s because Carlson’s ideas were better handled by City Council. Hafner called the Bad for St. Pete website “disingenuous” and “outlandish.”

You can read the 2021 Charter Review Commission’s 75-page report here. The League of Women voters of the St. Petersburg Area also created a handy guide.

Proposed Amendment 2

When the U.S. conducts the census each decade, all political boundaries get redrawn in a process called redistricting. The current process gives the mayor one year to issue a redistricting report; a nine-member panel of citizens appointed by the mayor and council members propose boundaries within 60 days to city council. The council could reject those boundaries and substitute its own with a unanimous vote.

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In its report, the Charter Review Commission believes the current process should be replaced with one that strengthens the independence and the integrity of the redistricting commission, saying it would provide for greater transparency and establish more equitable district boundaries.

The appointment process outlined in Amendment 2 would require a written application that is subject to public records laws. The city council would have to accept the district boundaries unless they are inconsistent with applicable law.

The opposition said the new “cumbersome” process lengthens the City Charter unnecessarily.

Proposed Amendments 3 and 4

In its first meeting, the Charter Review Commission created a racial equity subcommittee. Its chairperson, Roxanne Fixsen, was appointed to the commission by Council vice chair Gina Driscoll. She showed up ready to look at the charter through a lens of equity.

The commission proposed Amendment 3, which would establish an overall equity plan and a position of Chief Equity Officer to oversee those equity initiatives. The mayor would appoint the Chief Equity Officer, who would be subject to city council confirmation. In turn, the Chief Equity Officer could be removed by the mayor with a majority approval from city council.

Amendment 4 would back that plan up with specific, designated funding protected by the City charter.

The opposition believes these issues are better handled by City Hall. “Our Charter is not the appropriate vehicle to accomplish fairness,” they wrote.

Proposed Amendment 5

The Charter Review Commission bills this amendment as a housekeeping item that clarifies and consolidates redundant language and doesn’t make any substantive changes.

This amendment would add a residency requirement for the City Administrator. It also says the City Clerk should only be removed in the same manner as the City Attorney — at the mayor’s discretion with an approval by a majority of council. The amendment would also add a job description for the City Council Administrative Officer, who is appointed by the mayor with city council approval and has the power to hire, fire and supervise all City Council staff.

The opposition also said this amendment was unnecessary and adds clutter to the charter, characterizing it as “a solution looking for a problem.”

Proposed Amendment 6

This amendment would schedule the Charter-review process to occur two years before the redistricting process.

Since the Charter-review process and the redistricting process are scheduled to occur every 10 years, the two processes often overlap. The charter review commission says changes are either made in an expedited manner, redistricting is delayed or redistricting is done under prior standards and changes are implemented only when the next redistricting occurs 10 years later.

The opposition says there’s no conflict to be avoided.

Proposed Amendment 7

The U.S. Constitution has a preamble, so why shouldn’t St. Petersburg?

That’s the question asked by the charter review commission. Amendment 7 would add one that would define the city’s “aspirational goals, values, and priorities while acknowledging past shortcomings and promising a renewed and continuing commitment to improving the quality of life for all,” according to the charter review commission’s report.

The text of the proposed three-paragraph preamble can be found in the report. In summary, it declares that St. Petersburg “will be a city of opportunity for all who come to live, work, and play. We will be an innovative, creative, and competitive community that acknowledges our past while pursuing our future.”

Referendum Question

The sole referendum question on the ballot is a 10-year renewal for a program currently in place. This referendum came from the mayor’s administration and was approved by City Council.

It asks if the City Council should grant property tax exemptions to new businesses and expansions of existing businesses that are expected to create new, full-time jobs in St. Petersburg.

This program was first approved in the 2011 election, with 67 percent of the vote. Similar exemptions exist in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and the cities of Tampa, Clearwater and Largo.

Jessica Eilerman, the city’s business development manager, says this exemption allows the city to remain competitive. Two companies that have received the exemption are American Strategic Insurance and Jabil.

Carlson is against this referendum, too. He called the referendum, “corporate welfare.”

“I don’t think the citizens need to subsidize businesses to come here,” he said. “They’re going to come here anyway. This is punishing the citizens.”

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