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St. Petersburg City Council wants to hire some help navigating a sea of paperwork

St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, seen here at a 2016 meeting at City Hall, has proposed hiring four aides to help council members research issues and prepare for meetings. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Mar. 29, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG —Since the beginning of the year, City Council members have had to digest 4,522 pages of documents, attend meetings that lasted hundreds of hours and deal with resident complaints late into the night.

The average work week for a part-time City Council member? About 40 to 50 hours. They're paid $44,452 a year.

St. Petersburg City Council chairwoman Darden Rice thinks it's time she and her colleagues had more help: She wants to hire four full-time legislative aides who would help the eight council members prepare for meetings, conduct policy research and perform constituent services.

"I really see this as increasing the efficiency of City Council," Rice said.

The four new positions — including benefits — would cost a total of about $266,000 a year. The annual salaries, yet to be finalized, would be around $50,000.

Similarly-sized cities like Tampa and Orlando already have full-time legislative aides.

"St. Pete is an anomaly," Rice said.

The City Council currently has three staffers whose primary job is to answer questions from the public and coordinate the council's schedule. But as city department heads polish up their staffing requests for the upcoming budget season, Rice wants council members to join that discussion when city dollars get doled out.

Mayor Rick Kriseman supports expanding the City Council's staff, said mayoral spokesman Ben Kirby, but hasn't taken a position on how many aides should be hired.

The council ultimately approves the city's budget after two public hearings in September, but Rice doesn't anticipate any public outcry. She said she's spoken to community leaders who agree council members need the help.

Rice is running for re-election. But she doesn't think hiring more council staff will become a political hot potato.

"I couldn't imagine anyone making this a campaign issue," she said. "Frankly, it's long overdue and we all know it."

Council members warmly greeted Rice's idea at a March 23 committee meeting.

Ed Montanari, who rarely comes down on the same side of an issue as Rice, said he was surprised at the sheer amount of documents council members have to wade through to prepare for meetings.

He noted that he has to review hundreds of pages before each council meeting.

"It's not like reading the funny section of the paper," Montanari said. "It's technical, it raises questions, it refers you to other reports. Going through that and trying to understand it and comprehend it and then be prepared to discuss it publicly. It's a big challenge."

Hiring legislative aides isn't a new idea. A 2005 consultant's study recommended additional staff support.

The council should have control over who gets hired and Rice envisions the job attracting people at the onset of their careers, who would work for a few years before moving on. The city charter might have to be changed to give council members hiring power.

"That's all to be determined," Rice said. "But I don't see this as some kind of (political) spoils job."

The council's budget, taxation and finance committee agreed to continue discussing the proposal at the city's budget priorities meeting in May.

Council member Charlie Gerdes, a practicing attorney, has talked about making council seats a full-time position with a significant pay raise to address the workload problem. He said Rice's idea to give council more staff is a better solution.

He says he understands why taxpayers may initially balk at more city spending, but notes that the council has to keep a close eye on massive capital projects such as fixing the city's sewers and building a new Pier and police headquarters.

"I think it's perfectly natural for the immediate reaction to be 'we're spending more money, we're adding more people,' " Gerdes said. "It's incumbent on us to have our justifications lined up to provide arguments and evidence that there will be value to the taxpayers by adding these jobs."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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