ST. PETERSBURG — There is not a lot of air between the two candidates running for the District 5 City Council seat.
Both Trenia Cox and Deborah Figgs-Sanders prioritize the environment or sustainability, addressing affordable housing and economic development as issues they’d like to tackle on the council. Figgs-Sanders also includes youth programs and services among her top issues. Both also have long resumes of community engagement, and both graduated from Gibbs High School.
To distinguish themselves, the candidates lean heavily on their records, believing their flavor of public service is more easily translated to the dais. And by and large, the candidates are drawing support from opposite sides of the political spectrum — though the race and the seat are technically nonpartisan.
Figgs-Sanders, 54, runs a business consultancy and is on the citizens advisory committee of the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area. She is a former executive director of the Childs Park YMCA and she said she was on the city’s volunteer Civilian Police Review Committee, which evaluates complaints made against officers, according to the city’s website.
Her work on the citizens advisory council, she said, means she’s worked alongside council members and made suggestions to the city’s administration.
“I’m going to have a lesser learning curve,” she said. “I’ve been told I have a better chance of getting things done.”
Cox, 69, is retired after nearly 20 years at the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County. She has also been a city planner for St. Petersburg and a civil rights investigator for the city of Clearwater, she said. She has a masters degree in sociology from Western Michigan University, and said she taught the subject at St. Petersburg College. In retirement, she is the chair of the statewide Faith-Based and Community-Based Advisory Council, having been appointed in 2015 by then-Gov. Rick Scott, and reappointed in 2017, and she serves on the Pinellas Homeless Leadership Board.
“I don’t think she has the demonstrated level of effectiveness,” Cox said of her opponent. “I have managed and developed and analyzed budgets for over 20 years.”
On the issues, both candidates have a lot in common, starting with the environment and sustainability. Figgs-Sanders said she started focusing on sustainable projects when she returned to St. Petersburg in 1998 after living in Jacksonville. At that time, St. Petersburg didn’t have a recycling program.
“I was just in disbelief that we weren’t recycling,” she said.
She wants to see an expansion of the recycling and composting programs. She also said she wants to work on clean energy projects and continue to address the city’s ailing stormwater and sewage systems.
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Cox, too, said she wants to focus on stormwater management. She said the $326 million the city has committed to spend to modernize its sewage system as part of a consent order after the 2015-16 sewage crisis isn’t enough.
“Because we keep having a few mishaps, shall we say," she said.
She said the city should prioritize science and transparency in its endeavors, and improve its disaster preparedness, noting neighborhoods sometimes flood during tropical storms and even just heavy rains.
On economic development, Cox said the priority should be ensuring the downtown vitality spreads to the neighborhoods.
Likewise, Figgs-Sanders said she wants to improve small business enterprise, meaning to make it easier for local companies to bid on city projects.
And both agree that housing affordability is a growing problem, that zoning and land use regulations have created an affordable housing shortage. Figgs-Sanders favors tiny homes and an ex-offender re-entry program, while Cox said encouraging a livable wage would make housing more accessible for the lowest earners.
City officials are already working on measures to ease land use and zoning restrictions they think will increase the stock of and reduce the price of housing.
Figgs-Sanders also said she believes in youth services like mentoring and young adult entrepreneurship programs, because “I understand economic prosperity begins at an early age.”
The candidates are also in step on the future of the Tropicana Field property. Both said they want the redevelopment of the Trop site to include affordable housing, business opportunities, convention or conference space, and they both said it’s important for the benefits of the redevelopment to be spread equitably given the racial history of the Trop’s genesis.
Cox said she does not favor negotiating with the Tampa Bay Rays to play home games elsewhere until the Trop lease runs out in 2027. Team leaders said over the summer they would like to explore splitting the home games in new stadiums in the Tampa Bay area and Montreal, possibly as early as 2024.
Figgs-Sanders said she would be willing to commit public dollars to a new stadium for the team. She would only be willing to let the Rays play a half season in it, though, if the financials made sense.
Figgs-Sanders has drawn support largely from Democratic donors and local power players, including Mayor Rick Kriseman; council members Amy Foster, Brandi Gabbard and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman; and County Commissioner Pat Gerard. She has also been endorsed by the west-central Florida AFL-CIO, the service employees union, the Sierra Club and a slew of pastors.
Conversely, Cox has garnered largely conservative support. She has been endorsed by County Commissioner Kathleen Peters, and State Rep Chris Latvala is an adviser.
She has also been endorsed by the St. Petersburg Association of Fire Fighters, and by council member and likely mayoral candidate Darden Rice, who is a Democrat.