St. Petersburg’s new City Council avoids a coin flip to pick chair, vice chair

After two ties, Gina Driscoll and Brandi Gabbard will serve as chair and vice chair, respectively.
St. Petersburg City Council member Gina Driscoll, left, will serve as council chair and fellow member Brandi Gabbard, right, will be vice chair.
St. Petersburg City Council member Gina Driscoll, left, will serve as council chair and fellow member Brandi Gabbard, right, will be vice chair. [ Times ]
Published Dec. 17, 2021|Updated Dec. 20, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — The new City Council didn’t want their leadership to be decided by a coin flip.

In what amounts to a recent trend and, perhaps, a sign of fissures to come, council members again deadlocked — twice — in picking their chairperson and vice chairperson Thursday.

But the brief standoff was resolved in a relatively quick and cordial series of votes with Gina Driscoll elected chairperson and Brandi Gabbard voted vice chairperson.

Council members-elect Richie Floyd, Copley Gerdes and Lisset Hanewicz, set to be sworn in along with mayor-elect Ken Welch on Jan. 6, gathered Thursday morning with their soon-to-be colleagues to make their first decision as a new council.

Last year, Ed Montanari, who served as chair in 2020, was elected chair again over Lisa Wheeler-Bowman in a coin flip after the council deadlocked twice.

This time, the vote for the council’s top job was between Gina Driscoll, the 2021 vice chair who was nominated by Montanari, and Deborah Figgs-Sanders, nominated by Wheeler-Bowman.

Gerdes switched his vote to break both deadlocks. His first vote was for Figgs-Sanders before he switched to Driscoll for chairperson.

Later, he voted for Figgs-Sanders over Gabbard for vice chair before again switching his vote to break the tie and name Gabbard to the position.

“I don’t think it does any of us any good to continue to move on like this,” Gerdes said. “We need to find our leadership and we need to get there and we need to go. I’ll be that guy.”

The vote for chair tied on the first round with Hanewicz joining Gabbard, Montanari and Driscoll. Gerdes and Floyd voted for Figgs-Sanders with Wheeler-Bowman.

Wheeler-Bowman said she was happy to have new blood on the council.

“For the past two years it’s been hard coming to council knowing the atmosphere and the attitude,” she said. “I want to go back to a place where we can all get along. I’m tired of playing a political game.”

Figgs-Sanders said that although she’s halfway through her first term on council, she’s an adult with experience.

“No one could’ve prepared me for the contentiousness I’ve felt for the past two years,” she said.

Driscoll seemed to defend Montanari’s tenure as chair.

“I think we have to acknowledge the culture and the cooperation and the way we approach this work together doesn’t just come through the chair,” Driscoll said. “It comes through each and every one of us.”

Gerdes, without explanation, switched his vote for Driscoll.

The council moved on to select its vice chair. Wheeler-Bowman again nominated Figgs-Sanders, and Driscoll nominated Gabbard. A tie fell along the same voting lines.

Gabbard said she would make a great sidekick to assist Driscoll. Figgs-Sanders said she was honored to be in the position, but would do the work with or without a title. She said she would continue the momentum of righting the wrongs highlighted in the business contracts disparity study and structural racism study.

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Hanewicz, the first Hispanic elected to City Council, pointed out that, even though that had nothing to do with the vote, it was the first time there were four minority members on council.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “It shows where our City Council is going.”

Figgs-Sanders said she and Driscoll would “be each other’s yin and yang.”

“We will bring that diversity,” Figgs-Sanders said. “We will bring those two different perspectives. We will keep checks and balances in regards to what is considered equity and what is considered moving with the new administration.”

Driscoll voted against accepting the results of the structural racism study and did not openly endorse Welch for mayor. Gabbard endorsed Welch about a month before the Nov. 2 election after she won by default when her opponent dropped out of the race.

Figgs-Sanders and Wheeler-Bowman were early and ardent supporters of Welch.

Driscoll and Montanari stumped for Gabbard. Montanari said he’s watched Gabbard form connections in Tallahassee.

“We need those connections,” he said.

With the last word, Wheeler-Bowman said she wasn’t playing the race card, but representation matters.