St. Petersburg residents were offered a closer look Wednesday at where two city councilmembers and their challengers stand on both district-specific concerns as well as citywide issues.
Sponsored by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club and held in the St. Petersburg Yacht Club Ballroom, the forum and luncheon featured those running for the District 2 and District 6 seats in the November election. In District 2, Brandi Gabbard was set to answer questions alongside her challenger Kyle T. Hall, although Hall declined the invitation. Representing District 6, incumbent Gina Driscoll faced her opponent, Mhariel Summers.
The intimate setting allowed for the candidates and about 30 members of the public to better familiarize themselves, and newcomer Summers made the most of the time before the debate to introduce herself to every table. Tiger Bay Club Vice President Matt Lettelleir moderated the event. Tickets were made available to the public, though only Tiger Bay members were allowed to ask questions of the candidates.
The discussion opened with the hot topic of affordable housing, specifically how the candidates would address permitting. Gabbard noted her background in real estate and said she was “no stranger” to the time-consuming and sometimes confusing process. She said she would better allocate resources to expedite the process and better educate contractors and the public so that they “know what to expect going in.”
Driscoll said that more staffing would help, and she would like to move the permitting office outside of downtown to make it more accessible. She noted that many contractors have large trucks, and just finding suitable parking near the office can be a chore. “Sometimes the little things make a big difference,” she said.
Summers said that “there is too much of a gray area” surrounding permitting and that she would work to streamline the process. She also believes that education on the procedure is vital and would work to simplify it, so that the “average property owner can understand.”
All three candidates said they would work to build better relationships in Tallahassee, with Driscoll saying there was “room to grow” from where things have recently stood. She added that it “doesn’t matter what party someone belongs to, as long as they work with me to get things done.” Summers touted her experience as an intern with Sen. Daryl Rouson, whom she described as a moderate, along with Rep. Michele Rayner, “a progressive,” as giving her experience working with people with differing political ideologies.
Gabbard was quick to state that working across the aisle was one field in which she excelled. She said she has many people she considers friends in the state capital and pointed to her aiding Rouson and Raynor in getting the Urban Agriculture Act passed through the Republican-controlled House as proof.
When asked about transportation in District 6, Driscoll said she was encouraged by a recent study stating that Interstate 175 could be taken down to ground level with little impact on emergency response times – what she called her greatest concern. She said this would free up space to construct affordable housing and eliminate barriers to the city’s diversity and interconnectivity.
A Tiger Bay member asked the candidates what should be done about keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg, with both Driscoll and Gabbard saying they would like to find common ground with the team to keep them in the city. Summers called the Rays a “catalyst for economic development” and noted the work they do with area non-profits and the jobs that having a Major League Baseball franchise creates. She said the city could do a better job of “rolling out the red carpet” for the team.
The final question posed to the group asked them where they stand on the issue of single-district voting, which will also be on the November ballot. Summers said there were “pros and cons” to candidates only campaigning in one district, although she thinks it would better serve grassroots candidates without extensive financial backing (such as herself).
Driscoll said a hybrid system with at-large candidates, like they use in Tampa, “would be a different story,” but called councilmembers that only answer to their district while voting on citywide issues “a disservice to the city.”
“I need Brandi Gabbard to care about what’s going on in my district,” said Driscoll. “It might make campaigning easier, but do you really want it to be easy?”