ST. PETERSBURG — The mayor’s race may have drawn more attention, but on Nov. 5 residents will also vote in four City Council races — decisions that could swing the balance of the council on controversial issues such as the city’s use of red-light cameras and usher in universal curbside recycling.
City Council Districts 2,4,6 and 8 are up for grabs and, with two longtime council members unable to run because of term limits, at least two newcomers will join a City Council that has been divided on issues such as The Pier and endured public spats with Mayor Bill Foster.
Public safety has been the top priority for most of the City Council hopefuls, all of whom have pledged to work for more community policing and funding for neighborhood improvement programs.
With three of the districts bordering or including parts of Midtown, regeneration of the area blighted by high levels of poverty, crime and unemployment has also featured prominently on the campaign trail.
With his District 6 seat covering a large swath of South St. Petersburg, Council Chairman Karl Nurse has worked with owners and investors to get run-down homes fixed-up. He spearheaded new programs that provide an incentive for property owners to make repairs and for construction firms to hire local unemployed workers.
Nurse is pushing the city’s plan to partner with Pinellas County and designate part of Midtown as a community redevelopment area, or CRA. He is also recruiting nonprofit housing groups to speed up the pace of renovations.
“With a recharged city effort, I believe we can spur significant neighborhood renewal,” Nurse said.
Opponent Sharon Russ, a black community activist, has questioned the city’s priorities and says there is too much focus on downtown. She said the city’s recent redistricting process has made it more difficult for blacks to win seats on the City Council.
“I feel that the African-American community is under assault of more gentrifications and land speculation,” she said.
In District 8, problems of prostitution and drug-use in budget motels on 34th Street have made policing and lowering crime the hot-button issues.
Frontrunner Amy Foster said she will push to add more officers to the police department’s force of roughly 450 officers, including more community policing and more use of data to target crime hot spots.
“St. Petersburg has added more territory over the years; our issues have changed, and we need more officers and different staffing models to address the issues.
Her opponent, Steve Galvin, also wants a return to more community policing and would like to expand after-school programs for children to lower crime among youths. He said he supports the renovation of the police department’s main station on First Avenue North but would like to see smaller stations dotted throughout the city.
“Not only is this a deterrent to criminals, but it would develop a better relationship between law enforcement and the public,” Galvin said.
More than two years after the city introduced them, red-light cameras continue to be controversial. Longtime council members Jeff Danner and Leslie Curran, who are term-limited, typically vote on opposite sides of the issue. But six of the eight candidates running for council say they would scrap the city’s contract with red-light camera company American Traffic Solutions.
The exceptions are Nurse and District 2 Councilman Jim Kennedy, who received $1,000 in campaign donations from two subsidiaries of ATS.
“I believe it changes people’s behavior pattern, as evidenced by the extremely small percentage of drivers who receive a second red-light camera ticket,” said Kennedy, who supported the introduction of cameras long before receiving support from ATS.
His opponent, Lorraine Margeson, said camera technology is flawed and that fighting tickets means another $100 added to the $158 fine if residents are unsuccessful at a hearing.
“Our city gets little of the revenue, the cameras aren’t at intersections with the most fatalities from red light running, and broken cameras have given unfair tickets our city wouldn’t refund,” she said.
If Nurse and Kennedy hold onto their seats, as polls suggest, they would join council members Bill Dudley and Charlie Gerdes in a pro-camera voting bloc. That could result in a deadlocked council, with too few votes to cancel the city’s existing contract but also too few votes to renew or make changes to the contract.
While the fate of red-light cameras is uncertain, the introduction of a universal curbside recycling program following the election seems likely.
St. Petersburg is the only one of Florida’s 50 biggest cities not to include separate pickup of recyclables as a part of its regular trash service. It does offer a subscription service for residents willing to pay an extra $3.75 per month. Only about 7,000 homes pay for the service.
Six of the eight candidates support adding curbside recycling to the city’s trash service, including District 4 candidate Darden Rice, who said the city can offset the costs of the service by selling recyclables.
“Right now, St. Pete pays some of the highest fees in trash collection, yet we are the only major city in Florida to not offer curbside recycling as part of its everyday, normal trash pickup,” Rice said.
Her opponent, Carolyn Fries, said she supports introducing the service, but not if costs residents extra. She points to a city poll that shows support for a recycling service falls from 65 to 40 percent if it means higher trash pickup fees.
“People don’t mind having it but they don’t want to pay extra for it,” Fries said.