Citywide elections encourage all St. Petersburg City Council members to value broad interests over the parochial concerns of certain neighborhoods. Mayor Rick Kriseman wants to amend the city charter so that council members — in some circumstances — would be elected solely by voters from a particular district. This election formula could strengthen Kriseman's hand in negotiations with council members, because he could dole out pork barrel favors. But it could splinter city politics without any clear reason for change, and the council should not agree Thursday to place this proposal on the November ballot.
St. Petersburg's eight council members each represent separate geographic districts but are elected by a citywide vote. If three or more candidates run for a particular seat, a primary election held just in that district determines the top two vote-getters who then move on to a citywide election. Kriseman proposes changing the charter so that any candidate winning a majority of votes in the district primary wins the seat automatically, with no citywide runoff. In that case, people living outside the district would have no say on the election of that council member.
Kriseman's concern is that the top choice of voters living in the district can be overturned in the citywide runoff, which has happened in past elections. But that is true of all council races that include more than one candidate. The winner is decided by all city residents, not just those in the district, which makes all council members answerable to all voters. Kriseman has also suggested that runoffs can add to city expense by requiring a second election, but that is rare. Runoffs usually occur along with other votes. This year, for example, the District 7 race features five candidates, with an Aug. 25 primary and Nov. 3 runoff. Districts 1 and 5 drew only two candidates each, and those races will be decided in the Nov. 3 general election.
Kriseman's proposal resembles a single-member district arrangement, sometimes used to assure diversity within a governing body. In Pinellas County, for example, both the County Commission and School Board changed voting rules after years of political dominance in northern neighborhoods consistently produced all-white governing bodies that did not adequately reflect the county's social, economic and racial makeup. St. Petersburg's electoral system has worked well for decades, with all districts producing able council members who better reflect the city's diversity.
When council members need to please only residents of one district, mayors can bolster or weaken their political position by bestowing or withholding favored projects within the district. Fire stations, parks and recreation centers can become bargaining chips rather than standing and falling on their own merit. St. Petersburg has long benefitted from an electoral system that discourages such maneuvering.
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If council members are inclined to pursue changes, they could start by reducing the number council seats to seven to avoid 4-4 standoffs. That problem is illustrated by the council's deadlock over the Tampa Bay Rays stadium issue and Tropicana Field development. They also could consider the hybrid voting arrangement followed by the Pinellas County School Board, the Pinellas County Commission, Hillsborough County Commission and the city of Tampa, which each have a combination of four single-member districts and three at-large districts but every voter still selects a majority of the governing body.
St. Petersburg is not yearning for electoral reform. Kriseman's proposed charter amendment is an awkward solution in search of a problem, and the City Council should reject it.