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Former St. Petersburg Council member also faced whisper campaign over hiring

J.C. Pritchett II denies there’s anything inappropriate about his son’s hiring as a council aide.
Kim Vogel, left, the District 1 representative of the Citizens Redistricting Commission, and Rev. J.C. Pritchett II, who represents District 7, listen as members discuss a map proposal on Monday 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.
Kim Vogel, left, the District 1 representative of the Citizens Redistricting Commission, and Rev. J.C. Pritchett II, who represents District 7, listen as members discuss a map proposal on Monday 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 Oct. 4

ST. PETERSBURG — When a City Council legislative aide job was posted April 1, 73 candidates applied.

Some had master’s degrees in public administration, double bachelor’s degrees, majors in political science and public policy, 4.0 grade-point averages, military experience, work in cities and state legislatures.

Yet only two candidates were interviewed: An internal candidate and J.C. Pritchett III, a 21-year-old recent University of South Florida public policy graduate.

Pritchett III sent in his application on April 4, but wasn’t hired until Aug. 15, the same day his father, Rev. J.C. Pritchett II, began working on the Citizens Redistricting Commission as former council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman’s appointee to redraw City Council district boundaries.

Former mayoral candidate Vince Nowicki publicly accused Wheeler-Bowman of not living within the boundaries of District 7 seat she represents, as required by the city’s charter, at a council meeting Sept. 15. Nowicki alleged that Pritchett II helped redraw the District 7 lines to include a home Wheeler-Bowman recently purchased home outside the district.

After Nowicki spoke publicly, council members received about two dozen comments, many written with the same form language. Some pointed to the timing of Pritchett II’s appointment to the commission and said “sources” claimed Wheeler-Bowman “strenuously advocated” hiring Pritchett’s son as her aide.

The map approved by the redistricting commission would add the Melrose-Mercy neighborhood, where Wheeler-Bowman purchased her new home in July, to District 7.

Pritchett II has denied trying to help Wheeler-Bowman. He argued during a redistricting commission meeting that the District 7 eastern boundary should be moved out one block to include the 22nd Street redevelopment of the Deuces and the Manhattan Casino together. That way they would be represented under one council member in a predominantly Black voting district.

Another commission member made the suggestion to move all of precinct 117, also the Melrose-Mercy neighborhood, into District 7, which is what drew in Wheeler-Bowman’s new home. The other eight commission members agreed on that change.

Pritchett said the hiring of his son was entirely appropriate.

“There has never been an African American male aide in City Hall,” Pritchett II said. “I think it’s important that every council member has comfort in the person who works with constituents.”

Pritchett II said there is no connection between his work on the commission, Wheeler-Bowman’s new home and his son’s hiring. Wheeler-Bowman is term-limited, and her term was set to end in 2024.

“To make that connection is a little bit tiresome,” he said. “No matter what that map does, she cannot be on City Council another day.”

A city spokeswoman said the City Council administrative officer posts council aide jobs, through Human Resources, on the city website for three weeks, collects the applications, and handles the interviews and the hiring.

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“Occasionally, she will ask a councilmember to be present for the interviews in order to get their input,” said interim city spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez.

City Council Administrator Cindy Sheppard confirmed Pritchett III was one of two applicants interviewed for the position. She did not say why only two candidates were interviewed or why those two were chosen, nor did she answer questions about whether Wheeler-Bowman was present for the interviews, had a hand in making the hiring decision or why the process took nearly four months.

The job pays $44,232 to $73,370. Pritchett III makes the minimum pay on the scale, less than all the other legislative aides.

“The only thing I really have to say on the matter is I submitted my application for this position while the application was still open on the St. Pete site. That was almost a month before I even graduated from the university,” Pritchett III said. “As far as the quid pro quo I really don’t have any comment on that. I believe my resume speaks for itself and I was awarded this position based on my qualifications.”

According to Pritchett III’s resume, he was a student intern in the district office of Democratic U.S. Rep Charlie Crist last summer. He previously worked as a survey interviewer for the University Area Community Development Center and as a campaign assistant for Democrat Chris King’s 2018 campaign for governor.

From her front porch, Wheeler-Bowman offered a brief comment before stepping inside her new home.

“I couldn’t afford a house in my district,” Wheeler-Bowman said without taking questions. “I love my house. I’m a homeowner.”

City Council chairperson Gina Driscoll said it took nearly five months to hire her legislative aide, but that was in summer 2020 while city offices were closed at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. She recalled Sheppard screening five candidates over the phone, and Driscoll said she sat in on four interviews.

Driscoll’s aide, Bryan Casañas-Scarscella, is the founder and president of the St. Pete Heights Neighborhood Association. He graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 grade-point average for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“That seems odd,” Driscoll said of the circumstances around Pritchett III’s hiring. “It’s possible that he’s sort of innocent in an unknowing part of bad optics. I hope it’s all just bad timing.”

Other candidates reached for comment said they never heard anything back from the city.

“I feel like that’s something that happens so frequently, with not favoritism but nepotism I guess,” said Mychel Seyl, who has a master’s degree and a bachelor’s degree both in public administration and worked as an administrative assistant for the Santa Rosa County tourist development office. “I was surprised not to hear anything back but I just moved on.”

Salvador M. Valles worked for St. Petersburg’s code compliance department from 2004 to 2007. He went on to work for New York City Department of Buildings and the city of Santa Monica, most recently as an assistant director of public works.

“Certainly I thought that I might at least have qualified minimally for the position so I might get a screening interview,” Valles said. “I sort of suspected that maybe you needed to know someone to get a personal referral or the legislators might want to hire someone they might have experience with.”

Chelsea Crowley, a Marine Corps veteran who worked at the Tampa Veterans Affairs network as a program director, didn’t hear back either. She now works at a veterans nonprofit. Wheeler-Bowman is an Army veteran.

“It was definitely challenging when looking for a job. I have a bachelors degree, I served my country, I have tons of qualifications,” Crowley said. “You really need to know somebody to get a foot in the door to get looked at.”

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