ST. PETERSBURG — After City Council members twice deadlocked over who should be the body’s chairperson in 2021, they turned to a method that was sure to produce a result: a coin flip.
The wacky moment, with the city clerk standing between the two nominees in council chambers while he tossed a coin into the air, led to a somewhat unusual result. Ed Montanari, who was chair in 2020, will retain the position for another year.
The City Council chair’s main responsibility is leading the meetings and setting the agenda, working with the mayor and administration to advance issues forward. Generally, the chair speaks last on issues, summarizing points before a vote.
Traditionally, though not always, City Council promotes the previous year’s vice chair to chair. That didn’t happen in 2018, though, when the council overlooked Vice Chair Steve Kornell, instead choosing Charlie Gerdes to be the 2019 chair.
When the nominating period opened Thursday, Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders put up Lisa Wheeler-Bowman. Then, Vice Chair Gina Driscoll, who normally would have been a nominee, instead called upon Montanari to retain the position.
“Your leadership has really guided us through this difficult time, which continues,” Driscoll said of Montanari. “And I believe that times like this really call for continuity in leadership.”
Without much more discussion, council members cast their first ballots, which were not secret, as they wrote their names atop each slip. The outcome was 4-4, with Driscoll, Montanari, Darden Rice and Brandi Gabbard voting for Montanari; Wheeler-Bowman, Figgs-Sanders, Amy Foster and Robert Blackmon voted for Wheeler-Bowman.
That’s when the jockeying stared.
Rice argued that Montanari and Driscoll were effectively robbed of their experiences as council leaders, because most of the meetings this year were conducted through video conferencing software. Council members only moved back into their chambers inside City Hall last month. She added that she has been impressed with Montanari’s work ethic.
Wheeler-Bowman, who was chair in 2018 during her first term, responded that everyone has been robbed of something because of the coronavirus, not just the chair and vice chair. She said should she be elected, she would impose more structure to the meetings.
“Everyone knows that I can lead, and I can lead a meeting,” she said.
Figgs-Sanders, who is a first-year Council member, backed up Wheeler-Bowman, saying she would like to experience a different leadership style, given Montanari’s is the only one she’s served under.
Others felt similarly. Foster said there have been other years, even crisis years — like during the city’s 2015-16 sewage crisis — where the body opposed a suggestion of maintaining continuity. And Blackmon, who lavished Montanari with praise, calling him a role model, an inspiration and his “best friend on City Council,” admitted that he voted for Wheeler-Bowman “because it’s customary for us to change things up.”
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There was a suggestion that the pair could split the year, each taking six months as chair, though City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch recommended against the idea. Kovilaritch also shut down an idea to return to tradition and nominate Driscoll, the vice chair, because the nominating window had already closed.
The group remained tied after a second vote. That’s when they busted out the coin, to some council members’ amusement.
“Can we do mayor this way, too?” Rice joked, earning laughs from her colleagues.
Montanari deferred the call to Wheeler-Bowman, who chose heads. It was tails. Wheeler-Bowman gave Montanari a congratulatory fist bump.
The body almost returned to the coin again to choose a vice chair. Rice nominated Driscoll, while Figgs-Sanders again nominated Wheeler-Bowman.
Driscoll, Rice, Gabbard and Montanari voted for Driscoll. Wheeler-Bowman, Figgs-Sanders, Blackmon and Foster voted for Wheeler-Bowman.
But on a second vote, Blackmon crossed over and voted for Driscoll, handing her vice chair. As in Montanari’s case, Driscoll held that role in 2020.