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Community Voices: Charter Review process puts amendments to the city’s ‘constitution’ on the ballot

Roxanne Fixsen

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Photo: City of St. Petersburg.

Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.

The City of St. Petersburg is governed by a charter – essentially the constitution of the city. Every 10 years, a Charter Review Commission is appointed to review the Charter, recommend provisions that should be amended or added, and otherwise ensure that the document is keeping up with the times and evolving priorities.

The Charter Review Commission is composed nine citizens, each appointed by a city council member and another by the mayor, to conduct their review between January and July. I was a member of the Commission.

The amendments drafted and proposed by the Commission go straight to the November ballot and are decided upon by the voters directly. This once-in-a-decade process is an opportunity to impact systems and advance agendas that will shape the city’s future.

The Charter Review Commission’s 2011 amendments prioritized focusing on the city’s waterfront parks and created a subcommittee to focus on those issues. In 2021, the Commission made the decision early in the process to review the Charter through the lens of equity, and to create an equity subcommittee.

This decision was largely motivated by data in the Pinellas County Equity Profile, released by UNITE Pinellas in 2019. The study revealed persistent gaps across a range of outcomes – economics, poverty, wages, homeownership, education, youth preparedness and life expectancy – between the experience of white and Black and Brown residents. For example:

  • Child poverty rate:
    • 15% for white children; 43% for Black children; 27% for Brown children
  • Hourly wage:
    • $6 per hour difference between Black workers and White workers
    • This difference persists even when the workers have achieved the same education level (i.e. both have college degrees)
  • Home ownership (major source for wealth accumulation):
    • 69% of White households own their homes; 35% of Black households and 41% of Brown households
  • Life expectancy:
    • 2 year life expectancy difference between Old Northeast and 13th Street Heights District, areas separated only by 3.4 miles

 

It is likely that Covid-19 and its inequitable impact on our citizens has widened some of these gaps.

The Equity Profile calculated the economic impact if the equity gaps were eliminated, finding that the economy of Pinellas County would increase by $3.6 billion. The Tampa Bay Partnership found a similar economic impact in its December 2020 Regional Equity Report. They found that there would be an increase of $50 billion to the regional economy if the equity gaps were eliminated.

In addition to this lost economic potential, the Commission reasoned that St. Petersburg’s changing demographics mean that focusing on closing these persistent equity gaps  is increasingly important to the city’s overall competitiveness and resilience. As people of color make up a growing percentage of our population, the quality of their health, opportunities and prosperity will have an outsized impact. The life experiences of today’s children will determine the composition of our leadership, workforce and citizenry moving forward.

The equity subcommittee conducted research about what important elements are needed in city governing to close the equity gaps. The subcommittee reviewed various scholarly articles on the topic, resources from the National League of Cities, and reviewed actions taken by other municipalities to improve equity metrics.

On Nov. 2, voters will have the opportunity to vote individually on the seven (7) amendments. In the coming weeks, the Catalyst will report on each of the amendments and unpack their potential impact on policy and practices in the City. It’s an example of a fundamental democratic governance process that has the potential to shape St. Petersburg for years to come. Stay tuned.

Click here for an additional Powerpoint on the Charter.

Attorney Roxanne Fixsen is a consultant at Policy and Equity Consulting, and the former Chief Activation Officer at Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.

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