ST. PETERSBURG — Don’t skip the down-ballot questions on the Nov. 2 St. Petersburg General Election ballot. The first charter amendment question could change the way candidates are elected to City Council.
Right now, city council members are elected through primary elections limited to voters in that district, then the top two vote getters go to a city-wide general election.
It’s a system unique to St. Petersburg; other cities either have single-member districts, like Miami and Orlando, or employ a hybrid system of single-member and at-large seats, like the Pinellas County Commission and the Pinellas County School Board.
This charter amendment would change city council to single-member districts. It would eliminate city-wide voting for council members and allow a candidate receiving more than 50 percent of votes in the primary to be elected.
Those in favor of the change say it would help guarantee proper representation for that specific district, and it would secure Black representation for majority Black districts, like districts 5 and 7 in St. Petersburg, without being overruled by a majority white city-wide electorate. They also say the new system would encourage stronger ties in that district and reduce the cost of campaigning city-wide.
Supporters of the status quo say it’s best that council members are accountable to the entire city — it avoids council members working only for their district. They argue that Black voters throughout the city should have a say in every race, and under the new system a candidate could steamroll the election by coming in with more money in a shorter period of time.
On the side for a change: The Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, outgoing Mayor Rick Kriseman and current District 8 candidate Richie Floyd, who would’ve won that seat under the new system in the August primary, after netting 52 percent of votes.
But none of the eight current council members is vocally in favor of the amendment, including the two Black members, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Deborah Figgs-Sanders, who supporters say the amendment is intended to help and protect.
Where did the idea come from?
Roxanne Fixsen showed up to the first Charter Review Commission ready to talk about equity.
She was one of nine representatives appointed to the commission by each city council member and the mayor to review the City Charter and recommend any changes it deems necessary. It’s a process that takes place every 10 years.
Fixsen, who was appointed by Council Vice Chair Gina Driscoll, helped create a racial equity subcommittee. They pored over reports that predicted that Pinellas County will become majority people of color by 2050, and found that eliminating racial and ethnic discrimination in wealth would add $50 billion to the region’s $248 billion economy.
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“I feel like what we’ve had hasn’t worked from an equity perspective, so let’s try this,” Fixsen said. “Let’s do something different, it’s worth a try.”
The idea of changing to single-member districts was tabled by the commission 10 years ago. Corey Givens, president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign, thought it ought to be brought up again.
He contacted the ACLU and SPLC, and they produced a joint report that analyzed election data. It found that over the past 15 years, Black candidates for the St. Petersburg City Council have lost every runoff election against a white opponent — even if those Black candidates had the support of Black voters.
“Ultimately what we’re doing is we’re diluting the voting power of the minority districts,” Givens said. “And what ends up happening is we end up whitewashing that representation.”
The ACLU and SPLC had recommended either adding a ninth council seat or switching to a hybrid system. The commission toyed with adding a member, but figured the public would not want more politicians — plus, it would cost more. They also thought about taking a seat away. But then, which member would lose their seat?
A hybrid model of five single member districts and three at-large seats was a popular idea among the commission, but that would’ve required a major redrawing of district maps and the city is already due for a redistricting based on 2020 census data.
The commission settled on going to eight single-member districts, and that was a non-starter for Terri Lipsey Scott, who was appointed to the commission by Figgs-Sanders. Lipsey Scott was the sole no vote.
“We would find ourselves back in segregation if we went back to single-member districts,” Lipsey Scott warned. “Right now, there is accountability on the part of each representing part of council to ensure the needs of all districts are met. It’s a collective decision by the party to work toward overall city goals.”
Rev. J. C. Pritchett II is at odds on this issue with Wheeler-Bowman, the council member who appointed him. The Florida Legislature and U.S. Congress are elected single-member, he asked, so why not St. Petersburg?
“The notion that they wouldn’t be responsible to the rest of the city is incorrect,” Pritchett said. “One vote wins nothing in a city council meeting. You’re not isolated in your island at City Hall. You have to be a public servant.”
He said despite St. Petersburg’s diversity and progressive reputation, the city is still reeling from its Jim Crow past.
“This is a Southern town with a history of segregation that has a policy on the books and off the books that harms African-Americans,” he said. “The charter has to be looked at with that history.”
The SPLC and ACLU said single-member districts would reduce the cost of campaigning and more people could run for Council without needing big money donations.
“The most compelling part is taking money out of politics,” said commission chair Lars Hafner, who was appointed by Kriseman. “That allows for voices to be heard and recognized as opposed to money buying votes.”
That was a big draw for Tami Simms, appointed by council member Darden Rice. Simms felt that the pool of candidates would be expanded if money was less of a barrier to running a successful race.
“Over the past years, I have had plenty of conversations with folks who have chosen not to run for office because of that,” Simms said.
Ed Carlson, appointed to the commission by council member Robert Blackmon, says he’s given a lot more thought to the amendment since the commission. He’s no longer in favor of single-member districts and worries they would encourage well-funded candidates to buy out the election at the district level.
“I don’t think that’s healthy for the city long-range,” Carlson said. “Council members now vote on issues city-wide and are elected city-wide. This amendment would encourage members to focus on the district that focused on them rather than for the good of all citizens.”
The amendment’s biggest opponent: City Council
With a majority female city council, two openly gay members and two Black members, council member Darden Rice questioned at an August meeting what diversity was lacking on the current council.
“Was there any discussion that it might be more difficult to elect LGBT members in a single member district, or do all gays need to move to one district?” she asked.
Council members Brandi Gabbard and Driscoll said they were proud of being elected city-wide. Wheeler-Bowman and Figgs-Sanders said constituents in other districts regularly reach out to them.
Blackmon, who is running for mayor, said he’s on the fence about the amendment. He said the equity aspect and less money spent on campaigns is compelling, but at that same council meeting he warned of council members bending on votes because they’re only accountable to the voters of one district.
“The idea of being city-wide really gives you that buffer to make the best decisions for all citizens as opposed to just one pocket,” Blackmon said. “Some districts have pushed back any time there’s an affordable housing vote. I’ve certainly felt the heat from my district on votes I’ve taken.”
Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, running against Blackmon for mayor, is in favor of a hybrid system like the county commission. He is against the amendment.
City Council Chair Ed Montanari summed up his thoughts about the amendment succinctly.
“I put this in the, ‘If it’s not broken, why fix it?’ category,” he said.