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St. Pete election amendment fuels debate

Mark Parker

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. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

The City of St. Petersburg will soon have a decision to make on how it selects its city council members, as a proposed charter amendment fuels debate.

St. Petersburg’s Charter Review Commission (CRC) gave its final update to city council Aug. 5 and announced five potential city charter amendments are on the ballot for Nov. 2. However, much of the focus was on the first one – limiting city council elections to voters in the applicable council district. Currently, potential council members are selected through a primary election limited to voters in their district, and must then go through a general election open to all city voters.

This proposed change would eliminate city-wide voting for council members and allow a candidate receiving more than 50% of the votes in their district to be elected. The ballot amendment has garnered strong responses from city council and other city leaders.

Councilmember Darden Rice said single-district voting could lead to “ward politics that happens in bigger cities, where a system of cooperation gets replaced with a system of horse-trading.”

She added that a mixed system of single-district and at-large voting seems reasonable, but that a complete switch is “extreme.” Dr. Lars Haffner, Chair of the CRC, said that all options were considered thoroughly, including adding a ninth council member. The commissioners – chosen by the council and lauded for their diversity – thought that single-member districts would provide more racial equality and representation throughout the city.

Rice noted the current diversity of the St. Pete City Council. “We have a majority of women, two African Americans, two LGBT,” she said. She then asked Haffner if there was a discussion on how the amendment could affect the LGBT community with single-member districts or if “all the gays have to move into the same district.” Haffner said minority representation was discussed “quite a bit” and reminded Rice that “each of you had an appointee there.”

“It was pretty much unanimous that this is the way they wanted to go,” said Haffner.

Haffner said running a single-member district would be more “personable and door-to-door” and could help take the money out of politics. Running a city-wide campaign is exponentially more expensive than running a single district campaign. Councilmember Brandi Gabbard said she takes pride in being elected by the entire city – a sentiment shared by other council members.

“I had to campaign city-wide; therefore, I understand city-wide issues,” said Gabbard.

Councilmember Gina Driscoll worries about accountability, “if you’re only accountable for one-eighth of the population, but you vote on things that affect 270,000 people.” She acknowledged a city-wide campaign is difficult but added, “that’s why not everybody gets to do it.”

“While we’re here, the responsibility is so great, and it’s not to one-eighth of our city,” said Driscoll. “I do not serve one-eighth of my city; I serve all of St. Petersburg.”

While city council appeared unanimous in sharing reservations on single-district voting, many residents and city leaders hope for a change.

“At-large systems of voting have been deemed unconstitutional for diluting minority representation,” community activist Corey Givens Jr. told the Catalyst. He stands in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and urges voters to reject the current system and establish single-member voting for all districts. He believes an amendment to the city charter is needed for two reasons:

“The minority population has grown drastically in St. Petersburg but remains underserved,” Givens said. “And minority representation is stagnant under the current election system, despite changes to St. Petersburg’s demographics.”

Givens said of the 14 general elections between 1999 and 2017, Black candidates have only run in Districts 5, 6, and 7, doing a disservice to the growing minority population across the entirety of the city.

“As a result, only two current members of the city council are Black – while the other six are white,” said Givens. “Even though 37.8% of St. Petersburg’s citizens identify as people of color, with the Black community comprising the second largest demographic in the city at 23% of the population.”

Not all leaders in the community are fully onboard with single-member districts, however. Gypsy Gallardo, Owner of Power Broker Media Group and a lead organizer for the recent Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Policy Campaign, took a measured approach on the subject.

“I’m open to learning more and applaud the elevation of this by our Charter Review Commission, but in general, I am not a fan of single-member districts,” said Gallardo to the Catalyst. “They can have the effect of diminishing the political influence of Black voters, especially on controversial issues such as the new CBA policy.”

City Attorney Brett Pettigrew told city council that there was not an extensive amount of data presented to the CRC regarding the single-member district decision, but there was “a lot of public support for this and organized support from the ACLU and the SPLC.” He added that one of the main pieces of data collected by the SPLC was that since 2005, “Black candidates have lost every general election when their opponent was white, even though these races only occurred in Districts 5 and 6, which are majority-minority districts.”

“That was the main finding that was relied upon,” said Pettigrew.

The decision to keep the current system or change to single-district races will now be left to the voters to decide on Nov. 2. If approved, the amendment to the city charter would go into effect during the 2023 election cycle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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