With just 45 days to fill Lisa Wheeler-Bowman’s vacated District 7 seat, city council members could appoint a new representative for South St. Petersburg as soon as Oct. 6.
Council Chair Gina Driscoll called Thursday’s Committee of the Whole meeting following Wheeler-Bowman’s abrupt resignation Sept. 14. Now the race is on to find a replacement, and the city has launched a website with application information.
The deadline to submit applications is noon Oct. 3. While not an election, residents will have a voice in the selection process. The council decided to invite candidates to speak at an Oct. 6 Committee of the Whole meeting inside council chambers, where they will answer questions from residents and council members.
Friday morning, Vice Chair Brandi Gabbard told the Catalyst that while she expects a lengthy meeting Oct. 6, she believes the city council will reach a consensus by its conclusion.
“We have a lot going on in our city, and we need a full council,” said Gabbard. “District 7 deserves to have a representative as soon as possible, and I think all of us take that very seriously. So, I’m very optimistic that we will meet that deadline.”
She noted that council members do have “some leeway” at their disposal, as the appointment deadline is Oct. 30. However, she added that “everyone is moving in the right direction” to swear in a new colleague by Oct. 13.
Gabbard relayed her pleasure with the process thus far and said council members researched past procedures to guide them. She also stressed the importance of operating efficiently while allowing for public input and ultimately selecting the person best suited to represent the district.
Gabbard said much work remains, as council members remain unaware of how many applications and questions from residents they will receive.
“On a little bit of that, we will have to be nimble with,” she said. “But understanding how important this is to myself and all my colleagues through our discussion yesterday, I’m feeling very positive about the path forward.”
Councilmember Lisset Hanewicz noted during Thursday’s meeting that the ongoing decennial redistricting process complicates matters. The Citizens Redistricting Commission unanimously approved a new map with redrawn district boundaries, but it must still submit its final report before the council votes on its approval.
The proposed redistricting map shifts the boundaries of District 7 further east to include the entirety of the historic 22nd Street South – or Deuces – corridor. City Attorney Brett Pettigrew said residents in that area would be unable to apply, as will those unlikely to remain in the district.
The application process is only open to citizens with 12 months of residency in District 7 – and no chance of those boundaries changing. Pettigrew said the city would clarify what areas are eligible in the web portal.
As with other city council candidates, the process requires applicants to submit a financial disclosure. They must also deliver applications to City Hall in person.
“And then we have these charter amendments,” added Hanewicz. “And I don’t know what the public is going to do.”
St. Petersburg residents will decide if the city should move municipal elections to even-number years. That would create an early-voting mechanism and align with the county, state and federal governments.
If approved, the ballot referendum would delay 2023 races until 2024 and provide elected officials with an extra year in office. That means the appointee could serve on the dais until January 2025 and remain eligible for two subsequent four-year terms.
“They could be there for over a decade,” said Gabbard after the meeting. “And so, it’s a very, very big responsibility. I think it’s important that council gets it right, and we choose someone who is going to be a servant of that district for a very long time.”
While residents can submit candidate questions and speak during an extensive public forum at the Oct. 6 meeting, Council Chair Gina Driscoll sought to restrict the subject matter to local issues. She noted similar limitations exist during typical city council meetings, and Councilmember Ed Montanari agreed.
For example, Driscoll mentioned that questions regarding a candidate’s stance on abortion and gun legislation should not be allowed. City Attorney Jackie Kovalarich explained that since the council created the existing rule for open forums, they could apply it to the Oct. 6 meeting.
She added that the legal department would present a report on how to include such limitations to the council at next week’s meeting. They will ultimately decide on what questions will make it through, and residents will have the usual three minutes to address the candidates and council members.
“The National Flood Insurance program – it’s a federal issue,” said Gabbard. “But critically important to our city. If something like that ends up in the other bucket of questions, but you as a council member believe that to be relevant … then you could choose to use your time to ask that question.”
Following application and question submittals, city officials will further discuss procedural details at the Sept. 29 council meeting.