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Plea to St. Pete residents: End voter apathy

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Earlier Tuesday, and a bunch of times over the past several weeks, I shamed the Tampa Bay Times editorial board for taking a narrow stance on City Council races based solely on the Tampa Bay Rays stadium stalemate.

Now, though, it’s time to praise Times’ columnist John Romano who is not on the editorial board. Looking down the barrel at lackluster voter turnout in what is actually a pretty damn important local election, Romano not so subtly heckled the tens of thousands of St. Pete voters who won’t bother to vote in this election.

On the ballot are two incumbents, Steve Kornell and Charlie Gerdes, and two newcomers, Lisa Wheeler-Brown and Will Newton. Two of those races could end the long-standing stadium stalemate.

See, Kornell has been a consistent “no” vote in the battle for Mayor Rick Kriseman to build consensus for a deal he brokered with the Rays to let them look outside the city for other stadium sites in the region. Incumbent Wengay Newton who will be replaced by either Wheeler-Brown or his brother, the other Newton, has been just as opposed.

Wheeler-Brown agrees with the Mayor; Newton 2.0 does not.

That means a Kornell upset or a Wheeler-Brown victory could move the ball and get a deal finally approved.

I’ve long chastised the Times for making these races all about that one issue and I stand by my assertion that it is ill-advised and short-sighted. But it’s a divisive issue and one that a bunch of St. Pete residents are passionate about, one way or the other.

Yet a lot of those people will neglect their civic duty and, as Romano puts it, let one neighbor at the end of the block make the decision for everyone else.

It doesn’t matter what voters think about the Rays. What matters is, City Council elections, especially when there’s not a bigger race on the ballot, go relatively unnoticed. And people think that’s because it doesn’t really matter.

To set the record straight, it does matter and Romano does a fantastic job of pointing out why … with a touch of entertaining sarcasm.

Remember red light cameras? Loads of people hated them. Particularly ones who had to shell out $180 bucks for rolling just a little too quickly through a right-on-red or who fell victim to rigged yellow lights.

That issue sat stagnant until two new council members came on board. But most of you didn’t vote. Great point, John!

He chides apathetic voters for not wanting to “venture into Florida’s harsh November weather” to cast a vote.

And he hints that, hey guys, you’ve had several months to request and return a ballot from the comfort of your own home.

But nah, things like The Pier, which churned out a cantankerous bunch in 2013 to squash the Lens and more than doubled usual turnout, apparently don’t matter.

Nor does it seem the 31 million gallons of partially treated and raw sewage that flowed into our waterways this summer matter very much to residents.

City Council members vote on utility rate increases, complex budgets that very much affect every resident of the city, fire fees, historic preservation ordinances, curbside recycling … etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

And another great point by Romano about why voters should hop up off their keisters and vote: Bill Dudley beat then-opponent and now City Council member-elect Ed Montanari in 2007 by just 257 votes. Wengay Newton, who the Times loathes for his obstinate Rays stance, won by just 600 votes.

So of course it doesn’t matter whether you vote today. Donald Trump isn’t on the ticket. There’s no local equivalent to a Benghazi scandal – though, don’t tell that to the Pier critics.

By not voting, residents are putting important city decisions into the hands of just a few of their neighbors. Is that really such a good idea?

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Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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