ST. PETERSBURG — A Halloween display in the foyer of City Hall rubbed some the wrong way over its depictions of former City Council members, poking fun at one’s drinking habits and describing another one as being “murdered” in last year’s mayoral election.
The City Council office’s submission in a City Hall Halloween decorating contest was a half-circle dais surrounded by pumpkins decorated to caricature each current City Council member. But it was the “City Council Cemetery” with headstones of former council members listing their years of service and “cause of death” that attracted attention.
The headstone for Jim Kennedy, who spent 10 years on the council read, “Blown away by a hurricane now he’s three sheets to the wind.” Kennedy did not immediately return calls for comment.
Karl Nurse’s headstone read “EXHUMED sent to Ireland in search of affordable haunted housing.” He told the Tampa Bay Times he is moving to split his time living in a town near Galway, Ireland and in North Carolina, where he says he’ll work with Habitat for Humanity. He said a City Hall employee sent him a photo of the display, which Nurse called “mean-spirited” and “not appropriate for a city building.”
“You think about as a country, we are polarized and in a community, it doesn’t serve our community well to poke your finger in the eye of people who have served your community,” Nurse said. “It doesn’t bring people together. It just encourages negativity.”
The headstone for former council member Robert Blackmon, who lost by a wide margin in the mayoral election against Ken Welch, read, “Rest in Peace Robert Blackmon murdered at the polls.”
“I don’t mind the personal dig, but I think it sends a bad message when City Hall makes light of violent crime, substance abuse and hurricanes while people in our city have been suffering with little assistance,” Blackmon said. “City Hall needs to take more action instead of sitting back and laughing.”
City Council chairperson Brandi Gabbard posted a photo of the display on her public political Facebook page. She told the Times she did not create it. She said she heard that one former council member thought the display was hilarious, but declined to name who.
“Quite frankly, I thought it was very clever and very festive and I posted it,” Gabbard said. “In the grand scheme of things in a world that is so divided, in a world that has so much negativity and hostility, if we can’t find moments to laugh and be festive and even maybe laugh a little bit at ourselves, then I think that’s pretty sad.”
Former council member Darden Rice’s headstone read, “Harvard Law School ... just kidding.” She told the Times she spent three weeks in Boston at a Harvard Kennedy executive leadership program.
“The same week that there’s news about the chief [equity] officer quitting after 15 minutes, I think it just landed sideways and it wasn’t as funny as maybe a few people thought it was,” Rice said, referring to the city’s inaugural chief equity officer walking away from a $185,000 job after working for three-and-a-half weeks. “It doesn’t smack of inclusivity or sensitivity. There’s other ways to show humor and laugh at ourselves and bring people together.”
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The decorating contest was judged by Welch and City Council member Richie Floyd. Asked about the City Council display Wednesday, Welch laughed and said he had nothing to do with its creation.
Asked whether the display fits into his constant message of inclusive progress and intentional equity, Welch declined comment.
A headstone for Wengay Newton, who filed last week to run for the City Council again, read: “Silenced! Talked himself to the grave.” Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who resigned from City Council last year after she was accused of not living in her district, had a headstone that said “Lives on ... Just Somewhere Else.” The headstone for Amy Foster, who now serves as the city’s community and neighborhood affairs administrator, read “Continues to haunt the floors of City Hall.”
Newton and Foster did not return requests for comment. Wheeler-Bowman could not be reached.
The headstone for Charlie Gerdes, who recently retired from the city’s procurement office, read “Dearly Departed. He finally kicked the habit ... for good!” He told the Times he thought the display was hilarious, though he said he had not previously heard about it or seen a photo of it, despite his son, council member Charlie Gerdes, and his brother, City Administrator Rob Gerdes, being spoofed in the same display.
“I’m sure it was meant in a funny way,” Charlie Gerdes said. “I have no idea where the humor is coming from, but I’m going to ascribe an attempt at humor to the thing.”