The strong mayor form of government has served St. Petersburg well for two decades. But now a fit of pique over a misinterpretation of the City Charter is threatening to upset that balance. City Council members want voters to give them permission to meddle in the mayor's top hiring decisions. To prevent further politicizing City Hall's top jobs, St. Petersburg voters should say no to the charter amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot.
If not for some bad advice from city attorney John Wolfe to the council, voters likely would not be faced with the charter amendment. Council members became understandably frustrated in June, amid the city's search for a new police chief, when Wolfe told the council they should not discuss four finalists publicly lest they risk violating a provision in the City Charter that states: "Neither the Council nor any of its committees or any of its members, individually or collectively, shall direct or request the appointment of anyone to, or removal from, office by the mayor or any of the mayor's subordinates, or in any manner, directly or indirectly, take part in the appointment or removal of any officer or employee."
Wolfe now acknowledges his initial advice was too broad and has since revised it. He said City Council members could express their opinions about the mayor's potential hires to other members of the public without violating the charter.
That has not been enough to appease the council, which wants voters to amend the City Charter to expressly say they have a right to voice their thoughts on the mayor's hiring of top management officials but are still banned from taking any formal action. But the real risk from this proposed change has always been the potential for a grandstanding council member to interfere, mount a public campaign for a particular candidate and undermine the mayor's authority among his or her staff.
Voters were clear when they approved the strong mayor form of government that they expect the elected executive to run city government while the council's job revolves around establishing policy and setting budget priorities. The mayor already cannot hire or fire the city attorney without the council's approval, and council must confirm the mayor's appointments of city clerk and city administrator. That's enough. The mayor should hire and fire the police chief and other key staff without interference from City Council members.
On the St. Petersburg charter amendment, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting no.