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Gene Smith, St. Pete’s “Ninth Council Member,” mourned as news of death spreads

The man they called the ninth council member around St. Petersburg City Hall leaves colorful memories unlikely to face term limits.

Gene Smith, 68, was found dead in his apartment at 430 5th St Monday morning, according to police.

The death is still officially under investigation, but  preliminary indications are that there was no appearance of foul play, said Yolanda Fernandez, police department spokeswoman.

Smith will be remembered for his passion for the city and his intense interest in every detail of city politics and policy, say friends and elected officials, categories that frequently overlapped.

Often the only non-city staff member at council committee meetings, Smith could often be found on the steps of City Hall between meetings smoking a cigarette and jovially debating the issue of the day, often with a rumbling laugh punctuating a quick wit.

Although he never held elected office, his knowledge about the city earned him the nickname of ninth council member, something the eight elected council members often referenced.

"I don't know anybody who was more passionate about St. Petersburg and its government than Gene. He worked at it day and night," said Tony Collins, president of the Blake Collins Group where Smith worked as an independent consultant.

As word spread of Smith's death of social media late Monday, elected officials and activists mourned a man who had been active in the Pier fight, development and countless other issues since leaving corporate life in 2002.

Former council member Karl Nurse said he admired Smith's ability to mediate on hot-button issues.

"He never let emotions override his brain, " Nurse said. "He always brought common sense to the issues."

When he wasn't at City Hall, Smith often held court at an outside table at Starbucks at the corner of 1st Avenue and 2nd Street North.

That's where council member Gina Driscoll knew where to find him after she filed to run for council last year.

They sat and talked about city politics and a friendship was born. In recent weeks, Smith told everyone how proud he was of Driscoll, who replaced the term-limited Nurse on council earlier this month.

"He knew it all," Driscoll said.

Mario Farias, a consultant who has known Smith for years, said he will be missed by a large group of friends around the city. But Farias and others said that Smith rarely spoke about his personal life.

"Everybody knew him, everybody loved him," Farias said. "He was the most familiar loner I've seen."

Smith's parents died when he was four-years-old, said his cousin Bill Gramigna, 71, who lives in Franklin, N.C.

Smith came to live with Gramigna's family, who moved soon after from Philadelphia to St. Petersburg. He was raised as a brother to the three Gramigna sons. Their parents wanted Smith to keep his own name to honor his parents, Gramigna said.

"He was my brother. He lived a good life. He was happy," said Gramigna.

The rest of the family eventually relocated to Georgia and North Carolina, but Smith stayed in the city he loved, Gramigna said.

"He always used to call me and say, 'This is the in-place to live.' He loved St. Pete. He would never leave," Gramigna said.

Smith had been married and divorced three times. He had no children, his cousin said.

A graduate of Boca Ciega High School, Smith served in the Marines in Vietnam as part of a helicopter unit attached to the 1st Marine Division between 1970 and 1971, Gramigna said.

Later, Smith worked in financial services for Florida Power Corp., Florida Federal Savings and Goldman Sachs before beginning his freelance consulting career in 2002.

He was proudest of his efforts to defeat the Lens concept to replace the Pier, an idea that voters rejected in 2013, Collins said.

More recently, Smith had frequently posted to selfies to Facebook, asking friends: "Where am I now?"

Often it was Fresco's Waterfront Bistro.

Collins said he used to joke with Smith about that: "He was always at the same place."

Mayor Rick Kriseman tweeted his condolences Monday evening.

"Sad to learn about the passing of a City Hall fixture, Gene Smith – often called the 9th council member. He knew the issues well, helped us move forward on our new pier, and was always respectful. He will be missed," Kriseman tweeted.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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