Forward Pinellas will expand from 13 to 19 board members – with St. Petersburg receiving two additional seats – as its director explores creating a regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).
Chairperson Janet Long called Wednesday’s discussion an emergency meeting, as time is running out for local elected officials to agree on representation. She also noted it was the sixth time the board debated the issue.
Forward Pinellas must submit an apportionment plan to the governor that aligns with the latest Census statistics by the end of the year. The agency is also leading an initiative to merge Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas County’s planning agencies into one MPO.
“What we need today is real leadership; it’s critical,” Long said. “And I would like to remind you that the best decisions are made when it is driven by data.”
The agency’s board comprises area mayors, city council members, and county commissioners. St. Petersburg officials currently hold two seats, 15.4 % of the vote.
However, the county’s largest municipality encompasses 26.9% of its population. County commissioners represent 28.7% and have three votes, and Clearwater – with 12.2% of Pinellas residents – holds one seat.
The board must reserve 20% of its spots for county commissioners, one for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Agency (PSTA) and base its remaining apportionment according to population. At least 75% of the board, or 10 members, must approve the plan.
Forward Pinellas’ staff previously recommended adding two seats, one for St. Petersburg, for a 15-person board. Commissioner Dave Eggers presented an alternative plan at the last meeting that brings the total to 19.
However, that failed to garner the necessary votes.
“I would encourage the board to think hard about that proposition of go big or go home,” said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas.
It did, and members approved the measure 11-2. Under the new plan, St. Pete officials and county commissioners would each occupy four seats, 21.1% of the vote. Clearwater would also gain a spot on the dais.
“The more folk we have here, the better,” Eggers said. “I really do think that having a larger board – from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg, the beaches and in between – there will be a lot more voices here at our local MPO that will be used carefully by the ones who are representing us on a regional board.”
While most local leaders agreed with that sentiment, there was some dissent. Redington Beach mayor David Will submitted an alternate plan with 15 members that would not increase St. Petersburg’s allotment.
Dunedin mayor Julie Bujalski said that is unfair to the “extremely underrepresented” city. She called the expansion to 19 as close to perfect as possible.
“I just think 19 people is too many people,” Will said. “And four for the commission and four for St. Petersburg – I just think that’s leaning too heavy in that direction.”
City Councilmember Gina Driscoll asked the board to focus on the population ratio – as mandated – rather than municipal differences. While she appreciated that multiple alternatives offered Tarpon Springs a voice, Driscoll said Eggers’ was the only plan to give Clearwater an additional seat.
Chris Burke, Seminole city councilor, advocated on behalf of his constituents. He noted that the city has a higher population than Oldsmar and Safety Harbor, which split a vote.
Seminole splits a vote with Belleair and Belleair Bluffs, and Burke said he “would rather be in a two-team than a three-team, basically.” The board denied his request for an amendment.
Will and Burke were the two “no” votes, and Forward Pinellas will now submit its apportionment plan to the governor. That will help determine the makeup of a regional MPO, and Blanton said he hopes to have a resolution on its formation by the end of the year.