ST. PETERSBURG — A proposal to put the city’s portion of the Tampa Bay Rays stadium subsidy deal before the public in a nonbinding straw poll didn’t make it to first base.
Five City Council members on Thursday morning voted in favor of holding a discussion about the proposal next week, falling short of a required supermajority. City Council member Richie Floyd, who floated discussing the straw ballot, needed at least six of eight council members on his side, according to the board’s rules.
“I’m just disappointed that a small minority of council members were able to stop us from even discussing have public input,” Floyd said.
Council members Copley Gerdes, Ed Montanari and chairperson Brandi Gabbard voted no. They expressed concern over summing up the deal in a 75-word ballot question with a 15-word title, as required by law. They said there has already been ample opportunity for the public to weigh in on the deal to replace Tropicana Field and redevelop the land around it.
The deal would require a public subsidy from the city of more than $400 million before interest.
“I understand the desire to do a straw poll,” Montanari said. “But I can’t wrap my head around how you explain this in 75 words.”
Even some council members who voted in favor of discussing a straw vote made clear that did not mean they would actually support putting it on the ballot.
Assistant City Attorney Brett Pettigrew said it would cost between $30,000 and $90,000 to conduct the straw poll. The printing of an additional ballot card would cost another $60,000. The possible absence of a primary contest for the Republican or Democratic party would have raised the cost.
Gabbard said the city’s voters skew Democratic or as having no party affiliation. She said that may affect the outcome of the straw poll if there is no Democratic primary next year.
“You’re going to have a really challenging time, I think, getting a really broad spectrum of voices at that particular presidential preference primary,” she said. “We’re not going to be able to have something that really conveys what the voters are going to really, really be weighing in on. And at that point, it just feels a little like a disingenuous act for us to throw that out there.”
City Council member Lisset Hanewicz, who voted in favor of holding the discussion, said there is a public perception that the deal is already done. She said the straw poll would enhance transparency.
“This is about public funding, the most expensive decision to date, by far,” she said. “And they should have a voice on this issue through this straw poll.”
All 10 public speakers who weighed in on the issue were in favor of the straw poll discussion. There was no opposition during public comment.
“I think that since this is one of the largest developments the city will be taking place with and the amount of public funds that are going towards that, it just makes sense to let public input with that,” said resident Marley Price. “Since it’s not going to be a binding vote, I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t happen.”
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Rev. Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church said someone called one of his supervisors saying he needed to “back off” because he was “harassing the mayor.” He said the nonbinding straw poll would give the council one more data point before their final decision.
“Maybe we’ll learn overwhelmingly that the city approves and that will give you more cover from fringe people like me,” Oliver said. “Maybe the vote will be closer slightly against and that’s also a gift to you. It gives you a higher point of leverage for negotiating to make this deal even better. Your job isn’t to carry the administration’s water. We elected you to negotiate on behalf of us so that we can have the very best for the whole city.”