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St. Petersburg city attorney: Approach to place rent control on ballot flawed

Mayor Ken Welch backed the opinion, citing “increased risk for costly litigation.”
Residents advocated for rent control during a St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Aug. 4 in St. Petersburg.
Residents advocated for rent control during a St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Aug. 4 in St. Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Aug. 10|Updated Aug. 10

ST. PETERSBURG — The city attorney’s office warned council members on Wednesday that they are not following the proper steps in seeking to ask voters if they want temporary rent controls put in place as the cost of housing soars.

And that could upend council members’ efforts to place the question on the November ballot because of a looming deadline to submit ballot language.

Council members are set to hold a special meeting on Thursday in which they will consider declaring a housing emergency and asking voters if they support enacting a year-long cap on rent increases. They would first take public comment.

But the city attorney’s office says the question requires that council members adopt an ordinance, a higher hurdle that requires two public hearings. The council does not have enough time to give public notice and schedule two public hearings before a Tuesday deadline to submit ballot language to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections.

An analysis submitted by the city’s attorney’s office as part of Thursday’s agenda packet cites a 1977 Florida Supreme Court ruling. It voided rent control measures in Miami Beach because its City Council did not adopt an ordinance.

In a memo sent Wednesday to City Council members, Mayor Ken Welch backed his legal department’s opinion and said his administration remains opposed to the proposal because of the stringent requirements.

“We are further concerned with the current process being used to pursue these efforts,” Welch wrote. “That process is not being followed, putting our city at increased risk for costly litigation.”

City Council members voted 4-3 last week to revive a proposal they initially rejected in February to ask voters whether they support rent controls. The vote came after demonstrators held a “sleep-in” across from City Hall to demand action. Organizers were planning another protest Wednesday night, with plans to erect a “tent city.”

The Community Justice Project, a Miami-based legal group that has advised advocates pushing for rent control around Florida, has concerns about the city attorney’s legal opinion and how the resolution was written.

The group’s senior staff attorney, Berbeth Foster, said there is a newer law about the referendum process that allows for a resolution to authorize a ballot question and go through the ordinance process after the language is submitted to the supervisor of election’s office.

“I’m concerned that the document that was submitted to the council is not the strongest document to move the city forward and that it’s actually prepared in a way that’s more harmful than it is helpful,” she said.

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Foster also pointed out that the city’s resolution language cites housing data provided by the St. Petersburg Tenants Union that is from several sources, including the Harvard Kennedy School study commissioned by the city in February. That could make the data look biased, she said.

“Why would you attribute it to the St. Petersburg Tenants Union in an effort to be hands-off and say we’re not responsible for this? It feels disingenuous in a way,” she said.

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