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St. Petersburg’s redrawn districts remain despite council member’s resignation

Some called on Lisa Wheeler-Bowman’s appointee to resign from redistricting commission.
Rev. J.C. Pritchett II (far-right), a District 7 representative of the Citizens Redistricting Commission, speaks to members of the Citizens Redistricting Commission following their meeting on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in St.Petersburg. The commission approved a new map despite the departure of Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who resigned after complaints against her and Rev. J.C. Pritchett II brought up conflict of interest accusations about their involvement in the redistricting process.
Rev. J.C. Pritchett II (far-right), a District 7 representative of the Citizens Redistricting Commission, speaks to members of the Citizens Redistricting Commission following their meeting on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in St.Petersburg. The commission approved a new map despite the departure of Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who resigned after complaints against her and Rev. J.C. Pritchett II brought up conflict of interest accusations about their involvement in the redistricting process. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Sep. 19|Updated Sep. 21

ST. PETERSBURG — A City Council member’s resignation over accusations that she does not live in the district she represents did not affect the once-every-decade process to redraw district boundaries.

Lisa Wheeler-Bowman’s abrupt exit from the council Thursday following accusations that she did not live in District 7, the southern St. Petersburg district she represented since 2015, didn’t cause the commission tasked with drawing new districts to draw up or even deliberate on a new map on Monday.

The City Council will meet to begin the appointment process Thursday to fill Wheeler-Bowman’s seat. Former City Council member Wengay Newton, who held the seat from 2008 to 2016, and longtime Childs Park activist Brother John Muhammad, told the Tampa Bay Times they are interested.

St. Petersburg is the second major city in Tampa Bay to be rocked by a City Council member’s resignation. John Dingfelder gave up his Tampa City Council seat in March as part of an agreement to resolve a lawsuit filed against him by a local consultant for developers.

In St. Petersburg, some accused Wheeler-Bowman’s appointee to the redistricting commission, local pastor and Suncoast Tiger Bay Club president J.C. Pritchett II, of expanding Wheeler-Bowman’s district to include her new home. The new map unanimously approved by the redistricting commission Monday expands District 7 east to include Wheeler-Bowman’s home in the Melrose-Mercy neighborhood.

The city clerk, the city attorney and City Council offices received about two dozen comments, many written with the same template, calling for Pritchett to resign or be removed from the redistricting commission. The St. Petersburg Republican Club posted a template letter on its Facebook page urging followers to email the City Council. Yet no one showed up at the commission meeting Monday.

Reached Monday, Pritchett said he planned to continue serving on the commission. Wheeler-Bowman’s resignation never came up at the meeting.

Former mayoral candidate Vince Nowicki spoke at the City Council on Thursday, providing records showing Wheeler-Bowman purchased a home in July with a Veterans Affairs loan, which requires the home to be the buyer’s primary residence. The home is located in District 6, three blocks east of her District 7 boundary.

Related: St. Petersburg City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman resigns

Nowicki hired a private investigator to confirm cars in the home’s front yard belonged to Wheeler-Bowman. Last month, Nowicki filed an ethics complaint against Mayor Ken Welch alleging nepotism for appointing a family member to an administrative position in City Hall. James Corbett, recently appointed city development administrator and a distant relative, has worked for the city since 2005.

Council chairperson Gina Driscoll told the Times that the council, according to the city charter, has 45 days from the resignation to appoint someone to the vacant seat.

At Thursday’s 1:30 p.m. meeting, the council will have to agree on an appointment process. Driscoll said the procedure may be similar to what Tampa recently did: an application process open to anyone living within district boundaries. Then the council would discuss and narrow the field of candidates.

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Related: Lynn Hurtak picked to replace Dingfelder on Tampa City Council

Newton, who also served the area as a state representative, told the Times he’s ready.

“I represented this district honorably for over 12 years,” he said. “Hopefully I can provide some experience and contribute to some of the things that are coming before council to kind of move away from what had happened.”

Muhammad, president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, said he intends to apply for the seat after discussing it with his family and community members.

“We have a track record of service in the Greater Childs Park Area which makes up a large portion of the District and we are excited about the opportunity to expand our work of bringing People together, addressing community issues and working collectively on solutions,” Muhammad texted.

Pritchett denied trying to help Wheeler-Bowman, saying he only asked to move the district boundary one block over to the east, but redistricting rules call for keeping neighborhoods and precincts intact. He spoke about the importance of keeping the 22nd Street redevelopments of the Deuces and the Manhattan Casino together and represented under one council member, as the area is currently split between Districts 6 and 7.

It was not Pritchett, but James Kidder, appointed by District 8 council member Richie Floyd, who made the suggestion to move all of precinct 117, also the Melrose-Mercy neighborhood, into District 7.

Brian Caper, the city’s director of economic and workforce development who is leading the city’s redistricting process, said Wheeler-Bowman’s resignation doesn’t have any bearing on the process.

“There were eight other members who decided to do this,” he said. “It wasn’t (Pritchett) acting rogue. It wasn’t him saying we have to do this. The rest of the body said we are doing this.”

Pritchett didn’t ask to expand the district to include Wheeler-Bowman’s home at redistricting meetings, according to a Times review of video recordings of those meetings.”

Caper said even if Pritchett was trying to move the boundary for Wheeler-Bowman, that is allowed as long as it is disclosed.

The city has no disclosure that Wheeler-Bowman and Pritchett spoke about that. Wheeler-Bowman is also prevented from seeking a third consecutive term. Her second term was set to end in 2024.

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