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St. Pete City Council approves municipal election changes

Mark Parker

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Members of the St. Petersburg City Council approved a draft ordinance at committee meeting Thursday that would align municipal elections with those of the county, state and federal government. The change would expand early voting and save the city money, although it would also create redistricting challenges. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

The City of St. Petersburg is enthusiastically moving to align municipal elections with the county, state and country, which would provide an early voting option and could save the city over $1 million but also create redistricting challenges.

During Thursday’s Public Services & Infrastructure (PSI) meeting, city council members discussed a draft ordinance to change the city’s municipal election cycle. The potential charter amendment referendum follows a letter sent by the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Office (SOE) late last year affirming the SOE’s authority to decline the city’s request to provide an early voting option for its municipal elections.

During a December city council meeting, council members heard that instituting early voting would cost St. Petersburg over $1 million and essentially require the city to create a parallel election apparatus. At the time, Assistant City Attorney Brett Pettigrew said the measure was “practically impossible.”

“Realistically, if the supervisor doesn’t conduct the early voting, it’s not going to be conducted,” he said at the meeting.

The city has since changed directions and is now progressing forward with a draft ordinance to allow a voter referendum regarding aligning municipal elections with the county, state and federal governments. The council universally celebrated the move at Thursday’s meeting, save for some minor concerns.

Pettigrew told council members the change would likely increase voter turnout, expand early voting at no cost to the city and reduce overall election costs.

However, the city charter requires candidates to live in the district they hope to represent for at least 12 months before qualifying. Pettigrew explained the 12-month period for the 2023 election starts in June, while the redistricting process does not conclude until December. As a result, a person planning to run for city council in 2023 runs the risk of being drawn out of their district without enough time to relocate and meet the residency requirements.

Pettigrew said term limits would remain unchanged under the draft ordinance, but it would extend current terms by one year to counter the redistricting process.

“By shifting the election schedule from 2023 to 2024 – that would open up a six-month window in which a person who found themselves drawn out of a district for which they wanted to run could move into that district and reestablish residency in time,” he said.

“The ordinance is not a permanent solution, nor does it address all of the issues coming out of redistricting.”

Despite those challenges, the idea of increasing voter turnout while also saving money outweighed any trepidation.

Councilmember Lisset Hanewicz noted that the voter turnout for the 2019 municipal elections was just 19.7%. When the city held its elections in conjunction with the larger entities in 2020, she said that number jumped to 77.67%.

“Increased voter turnout is huge,” she said. “I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Hanewicz added that the city would also cut the cost of holding elections by 97%. Councilmember Copley Gerdes said that adding early voting while saving $1.3 million outweighs what he considers the only negative – less visibility for municipal balloting due to competition from other elections.

Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she supported the draft ordinance but was concerned by the redistricting aspect. She said redistricting is already negatively affecting the Black community, and hearing the word raises a flag.

“Not the white flag, but a red flag,” she said. “It might sound good in theory right now, but what will be the potential fallout for that?”

Pettigrew explained the ordinance does not directly impact the redistricting itself, only the timing of the process. He said that as it stands now, if a council member lives on the edge of their district and redistricting pushes them out of that area, it is “chronologically impossible to establish 12 months of residency.”

“This change would at least open up a six-month window for this particular election,” said Pettigrew. “There’s no guarantee how that will shake out in the future, but there are some permanent changes that we could do …”

The city council was unanimous in praising Pettigrew’s efficiency and explanations, and City Administrator Rob Gerdes joked he would handle all items moving forward.

Councilmember Ed Montanari called the proposed changes a win-win for the city. He requested that the city administration begins meeting with the marketing team to conduct public outreach on the ordinance before the referendum. Gerdes said he would start that process and address other redistricting concerns at another PSI meeting.

The committee unanimously approved the draft resolution’s language, and city voters will have the final say on the process. The city has until Aug. 16 to place the item on upcoming ballots.

 

 

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