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Don’t mess with St. Petersburg’s voting system. Say ‘no’ to Charter Amendment 1 | Editorial
Changing the way the city votes for City Council members is one of the seven amendments on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Several member of St. Petersburg City Council seen through COVID shielding at a meeting in March.
Several member of St. Petersburg City Council seen through COVID shielding at a meeting in March. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 1

A proposed change to the way St. Petersburg votes for City Council candidates smacks of a solution in search of a problem. The current system is a little quirky, but it’s fair and encourages councilmembers to find consensus on important city-wide issues. The proposed alternative would promote dysfunction and infighting, and potentially leave St. Petersburg with less regional clout. The city’s voters should stick with what’s already working.

Every 10 years, the city’s Charter Review Commission looks at ways to improve government operations. This time around, the commission approved seven amendments for voters to consider. Amendment 1 asks voters whether they want to change the way they elect the eight City Council members.

Currently, voters in primary elections for City Council only choose among candidates from the district in which they live. They whittle each race to two candidates, who then run off in a city-wide general election. The system functions well, though it is unusual. The Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissions and Tampa City Council employ a hybrid of single-member and county- or city-wide seats. This Editorial Board could support a hybrid system in St. Petersburg, but that is not the choice on the Nov. 2 ballot. Voters will have to decide to keep the current set-up or move to eight single-seat districts.

The current system gives voters from the entire city a voice in who gets elected to all eight seats. Once elected, the council members must be champions for their district, but they cannot ignore the rest of the city. The system encourages them to see the bigger picture and to work together. They are less prone to pit one district against the other in a battle for money and influence. They are also more likely to see the advantages of promoting and positioning the city as part of a thriving Tampa Bay area. The system isn’t perfect, but the proposed alternative takes away influence from voters by only giving them a say on who fills one seat on the council.

Proponents of changing the system to all single districts say it would provide more opportunities to diversify the council. Single-seat districts would better ensure Black representation for majority Black districts, like District 5 and 7, they say. But the diversity argument is undermined by the council’s current makeup: majority female, with two openly gay members and two Black members. Plus the runoff elections on Nov 2 have the potential to add more racial and ethnic diversity to the board.

Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, poses for a portrait, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, poses for a portrait, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“We would find ourselves back in segregation if we went back to single-member districts,” Terri Lipsey Scott, who was appointed to the review commission by councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders, told a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

Single-seat districts could make it less expensive for candidates to run, as they would only need to raise enough money to campaign in about one-eighth of the city. But it would also make it easier for a well-financed candidate to overwhelm a single district, effectively shutting out other candidates. And candidates in single districts only need to win a small slice of the city’s votes, which in some districts would embolden more candidates from the extreme ends of the political spectrum, something the city doesn’t need.

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In the future, St. Petersburg may want to consider moving to a hybrid system with a mix of single district and city-wide seats. But a system of entirely single seats as proposed by the Charter Review Commission would be bad for voters and bad for the city. Don’t fix what isn’t broken and certainly don’t make things worse. On Charter Amendment 1, the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board recommends voting No.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.