St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said she hopes to have a date and place soon for a meeting to address issues raised by demonstrators who have marched in city streets every day for the past several weeks.
Tomalin primarily is working with Terron Gland, president of the board of directors of St. Pete Peaceful Protest, which Tomalin described as an umbrella group for the demonstrators. The goal is to arrange a facilitated meeting “that moves us as a community out of the protest space and into the planning space,” Tomalin told the St. Petersburg City Council on July 16.
“We’ve agreed that a meeting is the ideal next step to come to common ground on our shared goals for systems change and to clearly understand what it is the demonstrators would like those who sit in positions of power and decision-making at the city to know and see and be collaborative about as it relates to change,” Tomalin said.
“We’ll be sure to be transparent about what comes from that meeting. The idea is to have it be a catalyst for ongoing collaboration that leads to meaningful change, and demonstrates how seriously we take this and how committed we are to building a city of which we can all be proud.”
There are two potential host sites for the meeting — the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and Eckerd College Leadership Development Institute. Outside facilitators would lead the meetings so that it is clear to the demonstrators that the city is not assigning the parameters of the discussion, Tomalin said.
“The main focus of the initial agenda will be public safety and the relationship between law enforcement and the community. If there are additional concerns they would like us to understand and discuss, that will be taken up in a subsequent meeting,” Tomalin said.
The meeting would be held in person and include no more than 20 people, in equal numbers from the city and from St. Pete Peaceful Protest. Representatives from the mayor’s office, the police command staff, the city’s communications team and City Council chairman Ed Montanari would represent the city, Tomalin said.
City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders — one of two Black City Council members — said she gets a lot of phone calls from constituents who are demonstrators, and she worries there’s a “disconnect” in communications.
“You do have two Black council members on council that can also engage in that dialogue because we’re getting a lot of those calls anyway,” Figgs-Sanders said. “That’s something I wanted to put out there, so that when I’m called I’m not lost in the conversation and I can do more than just say let me check that out or let me see what I can find. I think that will definitely cause a faster resolution as well as decreased miscommunication between the city and the demonstrators.”
Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said she does not want to see the demonstrators’ message get lost.
“I know it started with George Floyd … Then the message started getting lost and I had other conversations and they were saying it’s about equity. I said equity is very broad, tell me what you mean when you say equity, because I want to understand. I’m a council member and I represent you, but I want to make sure I’m representing you properly so let me know exactly what you mean and I still have not gotten that, so I’m glad that you are going to have these meetings,” Wheeler-Bowman said. “My hope is that they are productive enough to where something can come out of them.”
Council vice-chairman Gina Driscoll echoed Wheeler-Bowman’s calls for safety.
“Over the last couple of weeks I have had a growing concern that the safety of our peaceful protest group and residents and visitors here in St. Pete is being jeopardized. I want to make sure no matter what anyone is doing — whether they are marching for justice and equity or if they are simply enjoying dinner at a sidewalk cafe — that every single person is kept safe,” Driscoll said.
“I hope, Deputy Mayor, that when you have this conversation that that will be No. 1 because we do prioritize the safety of our residents, visitors, businesses above everything else when it comes to good government.”
City officials want to listen to all sides, Montanari said. “This is a good way to start that dialogue and listen to concerns that are out there,” he said, adding that he’s proud of the work done by St. Petersburg Police.