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The Times recommendations on St. Petersburg’s city charter amendments | Editorial
Voters in St. Petersburg have seven proposed yes or no questions to consider in the upcoming election.
“I Voted” stickers at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg in August.
“I Voted” stickers at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg in August. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 6

For St. Petersburg voters, there’s more than just a new mayor and City Council members to select in the Nov. 2 elections. They also get to consider seven proposed changes to the city charter.

Every 10 years, a commission appointed by the mayor and City Council reviews the charter, which acts as a kind of municipal constitution. After a months-long process, the commission issued a 74-page report in July with the seven amendments. If more than 50 percent of voters say yes, the amendment passes and becomes part of the charter.

The Times Editorial Board already recommended a “no” vote on Amendment 1. Here are the recommendations on the other six yes or no questions.

Amendment 2: District boundaries

Amendment 2 would create a new way of drawing district boundaries for City Council seats. The idea is to create fair districts, ones that don’t favor or oppose a candidate, incumbent, political party or political group — and to do it with more public transparency. The amendment has some merit, and in the past, this Editorial Board has supported redistricting reform. Unfortunately this amendment is also larded up with overly burdensome restrictions on who can sit on the redistricting commission.

For instance, a candidate whose relative was a city employee anytime in the previous four years would be ineligible. Anyone who held elected office in the city, was a candidate for St. Petersburg elected office or was a staffer for a city elected official or political committee anytime in the previous 10 years wouldn’t be allowed to sit on the commission. Those are just two of the long list of pre-appointment restrictions. And anyone who gets appointed to the commission would then be banned from running for elected office in St. Petersburg for 10 years.

Drawing districts is important work that requires people with high ethical standards. But these restrictions would rule out too many highly qualified candidates. On Amendment 2, the Times Editorial Board recommends voting No.

Amendments 3 and 4: Equity framework and funding

These two amendments are linked. The city, the commission report concluded, would benefit from eliminating equity gaps based on race, ethnicity and other characteristics. Amendment 3 would require the city to set up an “equity framework to address those equity gaps.” The city would have to devise an “equity action plan” and create a position of chief equity officer, who would report directly to the mayor. Among other things, the changes would “prevent differential outcomes based on race, ethnicity, or any other immutable characteristic at all levels of city government and in all functions of city government,” the report said.

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Amendment 4 would set up funding for equity-related issues including the requirements in Amendment 3.

Helping the city identify gross inequities and creating a fair playing field for city workers, residents, businesses and neighborhoods are worthy and important goals. The city should work to identify — and unearth the reasons for — discrepancies in pay, hiring and promoting, and the uneven distribution of city resources based on race, among other things. And St. Petersburg cannot shy away from its past or ignore current racial tensions. But the city charter is not the right place to address the issues laid out in Amendments 3 and 4.

Nearly every proposal in the two amendments can be enacted without changing the charter, which is often reason enough to vote no. In the majority of cases, the charter should not be altered if other viable avenues exist to accomplish the same goals.

A mayor can hire a chief equity officer, and the City Council can fund equity issues and ask for equity-related annual reports. In addition, if Amendments 3 and 4 were added to the charter, there is nothing stopping a mayor from essentially freezing out the chief equity officer. And Amendment 4 does not put a dollar figure on the amount of funding. So, for practical purposes, the amendments might not lead to the intended outcomes.

Even Mayor Rick Kriseman, who has championed equity within the city, doesn’t support these two amendments. He thinks appointments like a chief equity officer and any funding should be the purview of the mayor in the city’s strong-mayor system of government. The Editorial Board would add that if residents don’t like how the mayor or members of the City Council are addressing equity issues, the best remedy is to elect new people with different priorities.

The broad and ambiguous language in the amendments could also open the door to distracting and time-consuming debates over funding, which will do nothing to enhance equity in the city.

Again, these are important issues, but there are easier and more streamlined ways to address them. The city charter isn’t the right vehicle. On Amendments 3 and 4, the Times Editorial Board recommends voting No.

Amendment 5: Top city jobs

The proposed changes would clarify the role of three important city employees — the city administrator, the city clerk and the city council administrative officer.

The changes would establish the position of the city council administrative officer in the charter. The move would shield that employee from being fired solely by the mayor. Instead, at least five members of the City Council would have to approve the dismissal. While no mayor in recent memory has arbitrarily fired the city council administrative officer, the change to the charter makes sense, given the employee’s responsibilities.

The changes would also clarify that the city clerk may work directly with the City Council and all other aspects of city government. The mayor could fire the clerk, but only with the blessing of the majority of City Council. Those moves have some merit, too.

But the amendment would also create a strict requirement that the city administrator live in the city within six months of taking the job. The change would provide no wiggle room. Tampa, for instance, has a similar residency requirement, but the city allows for waivers for extenuating circumstances. The Tampa Bay area has had many examples of successful top administrators and police chiefs who lived outside of the city or county in which they were employed. For example, highly regarded former Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard lived in Hillsborough County.

This overly strict residency requirement could limit the candidate pool, potentially leaving the important job to a less experienced and less talented candidate. The tradeoff isn’t worth it. On Amendment 5, the Times Editorial Board recommends voting No.

Amendment 6: Charter review and redistricting schedule

The charter review process and the redrawing of voting districts occur every 10 years, often overlapping or in close proximity. Sometimes the charter review process results in changes to the redistricting process. The timing can result in a rushed result or another less-than-ideal outcome.

Amendment 6 would move the charter review process to years that end in 9 — 2029, 2039 etc. — separating it in time from the redistricting process. The amendment would also provide extra time for the charter review commission to complete its work.

The city charter specifically lays out the timing of the charter review commission, so these sensible, low-cost, low-risk changes should be made by passing an amendment. On Amendment 6, the Times Editorial Board recommends voting Yes.

Amendment 7: City charter preamble.

This amendment would add a preamble to the city charter, which currently lacks one. There’s no requirement that a charter have a preamble, and the one proposed in this amendment falls short in too many ways — too long, too vague and hardly inspiring — to garner our support. The city has lived without a preamble for decades, and it can survive at least 10 more years without one. On Amendment 7, the 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.