St. Petersburg said goodbye to two longstanding pillars of its City Council Thursday, outgoing Council Chair Charlie Gerdes of District 1, and Steve Kornell of District 5. With a combined 18 years of experience as council members, the pair leave big shoes to fill for newcomers Robert Blackmon and Deborah Figgs-Sanders. The incoming council members were sworn in Thursday after both Kornell and Gerdes were honored by their colleagues at a final council meeting, winning praise for their leadership on Council over the last decade.
Kornell was elected in 2009 to fill a vacancy in District 5, as Jamie Bennett stepped down to run for mayor. Kornell was automatically re-elected in 2011 and won his final term in 2015. All told, he spent 10 years serving District 5, which encompasses Greater Pinellas Point, Eckerd College and part of the Skyway Marina District that was formed during his tenure.
Kornell was St. Petersburg’s first openly gay council member, ushering in an era of increasing acceptance for LGBTQ+ candidates and the city’s embrace of St. Pete Pride festivities. He and his colleagues spoke of how the city has changed since his election, welcoming diversity of age, gender and sexual orientation to the dais and the city as a whole.
“I wouldn’t have the pleasure of serving if it wasn’t for you,” said Council member Amy Foster, who is one of two openly gay women currently serving.
The new council, the most diverse group yet, will feature six women and welcome the youngest member ever to serve, Robert Blackmon, who is 30 years old. For the first time in city history, two African American women, Figgs-Sanders and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, will serve at the same time.
Known for his willingness to speak against city staff and administration recommendations, Kornell was characterized by his colleagues as a fighter, defending St. Pete’s most vulnerable citizens. Both Foster and Wheeler-Bowman spoke to Kornell’s willingness to “throw a hand grenade,” his love for youth and his willingness to go against popular opinion.
“There are a lot of votes that you took courageous calls on that others disagreed with that many times, many years later you ended up being right,” said Foster. Kornell himself pointed to his vote on the Albert Whitted water treatment plant as one of those votes. He was one of only two no-votes against closing the water treatment plant, a decision that the city would come to regret as the sewage crisis raged. “That was a fireball, but it’s one that I’m proud of,” Kornell remarked. “History proved that correct.”
Kornell also spoke to victories in decriminalizing marijuana and winning a fight against developers looking to build adjacent to the city’s nature preserve, Boyd Hill. Incoming Council Chair Ed Montanari said he knew Kornell was getting fired up about an issue when he’d raise a finger while speaking. “But you know it’s serious when he raises two fingers,” Montanari laughed.
Gerdes, an attorney by trade, was described by Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin as St. Pete’s very own Atticus Finch. Gerdes was notoriously emotional on the dais, known to get tearful when a youth organization or sports team would present at a council meeting. His colleagues described him as a deeply religious and faithful man with an open heart, worn on his sleeve. “You have the heart of a lion,” said Council member Darden Rice. “You are a harmonizer. I love your mind and the way you think. You think aloud and have such great logic.”
Rice also pointed to Gerdes’ ability to argue a perspective in a way that changed minds on the dais. “Because of your presence on Council, we’ve made better decisions, more courageous decisions,” she said. “Whether you’re throwing the first pitch or allowing yourself the last thoughtful word, you’ve been an incredible leader.”
Montanari remembered Gerdes for his command of the lengthy backup material provided to council to prepare for their meetings, and for often beating him to City Hall prior to an early morning council or committee meeting. Wheeler-Bowman spoke of her respect for Gerdes’ authenticity and honesty, and her appreciation for his guidance over the years.
“There’s no way I could talk about your service to our city without honoring who you are and how you lead, which is seeded in your faith,” said Foster through tears. “You lead a compassionate life and you encourage others to do as well,” she said.
Foster went on to describe Gerdes as a prophet. “Prophets then and now are those who look at life as it is, hard of heart for many, unfair for most, and you set out to expand it. Prophets refuse to accept a vision of tomorrow that is limited to the boundaries of yesterday and empty of God’s word for today.”
“In every vote that you made,” Foster continued, “you refused to accept the injustices of our community. At every step you thought about what was right, fair and just and what would make this city a better place for your grandchildren.”
Click the arrows below to view images from Thursday’s final city council meeting and swearing-in ceremony.