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  1. Opinion

For St. Petersburg City Council | Times recommends

Incumbents Ed Montanari and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman deserve to be re-elected. Robert Blackmon and Trenia Cox would add new perspective and more diversity.
From left to right: St. Petersburg City Council Candidates Robert Blackmon; Ed Montanari; Trenia Cox; Lisa Wheeler-Bowman [SCOTT KEELER AND CHRIS URSO  |  Tampa Bay Times]
From left to right: St. Petersburg City Council Candidates Robert Blackmon; Ed Montanari; Trenia Cox; Lisa Wheeler-Bowman [SCOTT KEELER AND CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sep. 27

St. Petersburg has a vibrant downtown, rising property values and a low crime rate. It also has challenges ranging from a lack of affordable housing to neighborhoods that have not benefited from the strong economy. Four City Council races are on the Nov. 5 ballot, including two open seats and two that feature popular incumbents. All St. Petersburg voters can vote in each race. Council members earn $49,281 and serve four-year terms.

Robert Blackmon

District 1

There was no primary race in the St. Petersburg City Council district that covers the Tyrone area in west St. Petersburg because there are only two candidates. Either one would have to grow in the office to effectively succeed term-limited Charlie Gerdes, who has been a respected, stabilizing presence for eight years. The clear choice is real estate investor Robert Blackmon, who knows the city and the issues well.

Blackmon, 30, ran a credible campaign two years ago and finished a close third in District 6, which includes downtown, parts of Midtown and the Old Southeast. He now lives in the Tyrone area, but he also has lived in Midtown and is familiar with neighborhoods throughout the city. He also is well-versed in the city’s zoning, building and permitting operations from his experience buying and renovating residential properties.

As a candidate, Blackmon focuses on the same priorities he embraced two years ago: improving the city’s infrastructure, economic development and environmental issues. He supports continuing to invest in repairing and replacing sewage lines, and he proposes incentives for homeowners to inspect and repair their lateral lines. He envisions a mix of redevelopment on the Tropicana Field site, including workforce housing, retail and opportunities for minority owned businesses. He wants to promote the city as a destination for eco-tourism and develop recreational opportunities around Salt Creek and Booker Creek.

Blackmon has the correct flexible approach toward the Tampa Bay Rays, preferring that the franchise remain in St. Petersburg but open to Tampa possibilities so that the Rays remain in the region. He would commit some public money toward a new stadium as part of a larger redevelopment effort. He supports using police body cameras and wants the city to continue to focus on reducing auto thefts.

John Hornbeck, 34, is a lawyer and first-time candidate who acknowledges he “does not have all the answers.’’ He wants to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg and opposes sharing the team with Montreal. He advocates for affordable youth programs and supports police body cameras. But Hornbeck lacks specifics on many issues.

Blackmon has a nice mix of support from throughout the city. He would be the youngest council member and offer another independent viewpoint that would be informed by his deep roots in the city and his business experience. For St. Petersburg City Council District 1, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Robert Blackmon.

Ed Montanari

District 3

There is a reason St. Petersburg City Council member Ed Montanari won more than 70 percent of the vote in the August primary in District 3, which includes Shore Acres and Snell Isle. Montanari thoroughly researches the issues, and he is an independent voice who is willing to vote against the council majority. He provides an informed counter-balance to the council majority’s liberal leanings, and he deserves to be elected to a second term.

Montanari, 61, is a commercial airline pilot who was elected unopposed four years ago. He already had served on city task forces on key issues involving the future of Albert Whitted Airport, a stadium plan for the Tampa Bay Rays and the Pier. That history has helped him provide valuable perspective on the council, and he often takes the long view on issues when others may be more interested in short-term political benefits.

On the council, Montanari has supported improving wastewater and sewage systems, building the new pier and the proposed bus rapid transit line from downtown to St. Pete Beach. While he generally votes with the majority, he has voted against some high-profile efforts by Mayor Rick Kriseman that the council approved. For example, Montanari opposed the “complete streets’’ program that has reduced traffic lanes in favor of bike paths and traffic calming measures, and the planned Janet Echelman art installation at the Pier.

In a second term, Montanari wants to continue to protect waterfront parks, invest in infrastructure and address the impacts of climate change. He opposes the Tampa Bay Rays’ proposal to divide its games with Montreal, and he wants to redevelop the Tropicana Field site as a destination that features Booker Creek as an attraction and brings new businesses. He opposes police body cameras, supports a regional approach to improve transportation and remains concerned about the disparities between the more affluent and poorer portions of the city.

Orlando Acosta, 48, is an Air Force veteran and military defense consultant who is a first-time candidate. He wants to address the impact of climate change and opposes sharing the Rays with Montreal. He envisions transit, affordable housing and new businesses as part of the Trop site. Acosta criticizes Montanari for voting against some issues supported by more liberal council members, such as a ban on straws.

Montanari is an engaged, effective council member. For St. Petersburg City Council District 3, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Ed Montanari.

Trenia Cox

District 5

There are two well-qualified candidates to succeed term-limited Steve Kornell in this racially diverse St. Petersburg City Council district that includes the city’s most southern neighborhoods. Trenia Cox is most likely to bring an independent voice and fresh perspective, and she has the best blend of experience in the public sector and civic involvement.

Cox, 69, finished first in the five-candidate August primary and spent nearly two decades working for the Juvenile Welfare Board in several roles before retiring two years ago. She worked on school readiness issues and managed contracts with youth programs. Since retiring, Cox has remained engaged as a member of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board and the District Monitoring and Advisory Committee for Pinellas County Schools, which monitors the school district’s commitment to racial diversity and economic equity.

As a council member, Cox would focus on sustainability issues ranging from upgrading stormwater systems to adding transit options. She wants to create jobs through more job training and assistance to small businesses. She recognizes the need for more affordable housing and proposes creating development incentives to add units and adopting more flexible zoning. She would pair that with efforts to raise incomes through initiatives such as attracting more jobs in sectors that are growing, such as the green economy and high-tech.

Deborah Figgs-Sanders, 54, finished a strong second in the primary and is a consultant who worked for seven years as the executive director of the Childs Park YMCA before leaving in 2017. She serves on the advisory committee of the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area. Figgs-Sanders would focus on youth services and programs, creating more affordable housing and expanding opportunities for small businesses.

Figgs-Sanders and Cox each see redevelopment of the 85 acres at Tropicana Field as an opportunity to create more housing and job opportunities for black residents, whose families were displaced before the stadium was built. They suggest the site could include a hotel conference center or a convention center, and they have not endorsed the Tampa Bay Rays’ proposal to split home games with Montreal.

These candidates have similar positions on most issues. Cox is more likely to reach her own conclusions on key issues without being unduly influenced by forces inside or outside City Hall. For St. Petersburg City Council District 5, which includes Pinellas Point and Lakewood Estates, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Trenia Cox.

Lisa Wheeler-Bowman

District 7

St. Petersburg City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman provides a strong connection between city government and a district that includes much of Midtown and some of the city’s poorest, predominantly black neighborhoods south of a thriving downtown. She provides a common-sense approach blended with strong relationships with city staffers and her council colleagues, and she deserves to be re-elected.

Wheeler-Bowman, 51, emerged as a civic leader after her son was murdered in 2008. She sought tips from the community and helped authorities find the killer, who is serving a life sentence. She won this open council seat in 2015, and she won more than 57 percent of the vote in a four-way primary in August. One reason: She provides residents in her district with strong links to the police department, code enforcement and other city services that have benefited those neighborhoods.

On the council, Wheeler-Bowman voted to allow the Tampa Bay Rays to spend three years looking for a new home in Tampa, which proved unsuccessful. She has not endorsed the Rays’ latest plan to split home games with Montreal. She wants to start redeveloping the Tropicana Field site while the Rays are still playing there, perhaps with affordable housing west of the dome. In the long-term, she envisions a community benefit agreement that would enable some proceeds from development of the Trop site to be used for redevelopment in nearby neighborhoods.

Wheeler-Bowman supports creating more affordable housing and the city’s efforts to address the impacts of climate change. She also has supported Mayor Rick Kriseman’s “complete streets” program that has reduced traffic lanes in favor of bike paths and traffic-calming elements, but she has concerns about its implementation.

Eritha “Akile’’ Cainion, 22, is affiliated with the Uhuru Solidarity Movement and ran unsuccessfully for the District 6 seat in 2017. She is the most charismatic City Council candidate in any race. Yet her key policy proposals are unworkable. Cainion is focused on reparations for the black community and wants the city to return the Trop site to black residents through a land trust. Beyond that, the details are unclear.

Most disturbing is Cainion’s campaign theme: "Make the Southside black again.'' That divisive rhetoric has no place in a credible political campaign, and voters of all racial and ethnic backgrounds should reject it.

The choice is clear in this race. For St. Petersburg City Council District 7, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Lisa Wheeler-Bowman.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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