St. Pete City Council candidates weighed in on a couple of new issues affecting the city. During a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of St. Pete, five candidates for District 7 sat on the dais during an hour-long question-and-answer session.
One of the new questions posed to candidates involved the city’s current and proposed methods for determining local historic designation for neighborhoods. The issue has become roiled in controversy as teams of support and opposition fight on either side of the argument.
At issue is whether City Council should approve changes to an ordinance that would make it easier for neighborhoods to obtain historic designation.
Not one single candidate showed support for loosening the ordinance. Lisa Wheeler-Brown came the closest to supporting the ordinance, saying she would “support whatever the homeowners in that neighborhood would want.”
Will Newton, Wheeler-Brown’s likely toughest competition, questioned whether the issue was a solution in search of a problem.
“The current system is working,” he said.
Under the current ordinance two-thirds of all homeowners in a neighborhood would have to vote in favor of designation to move the process forward. Under proposed changes that threshold would be lowered and likely include only respondents rather than counting a missed vote as an automatic no.
That leaves opponents arguing a small percent of a neighborhood would wind up making the decision for the rest of the neighborhood.
“You cannot take the voice away from the people in District 7,” Lewis Stephens, a Pinellas County Schools behavioral specialist, said. He noted the people in the poorest parts of District 7, including Midtown and Childs Park, already feel like they don’t have a voice.
There is also concern over property rights with several conservative activists opposing the effort on that front. Sheila Scott-Griffin, a retired attorney, argued the property rights concern as well.
The current City Council is set to vote on the matter August 20. Information uncovered by SaintPetersblog showed the city received more than 300 emails in opposition to the proposed changes, and just about 60 in favor of it. It’s unclear how City Council will vote, but it’s possible the effort will either be defeated or tabled until a later date. If either of those is the case, the winner of this race could face the same issue again next year.
Another new question posed to candidates involved their plans for ensuring District 7 doesn’t fall victim to gentrification.
“Anyone that has grown up in that community shouldn’t be forced to move,” Stephens said.
Lisa Wheeler-Brown said there are four boarded-up homes on her block representing the blight-plagued Midtown. Those kinds of conditions make areas ripe for investors looking to revitalize an area and price the existing community out.
Each candidate uniquely supported making sure that doesn’t happen.
“We educate our residents,” Wheeler-Brown said. “We teach them about raising their credit scores; we teach them about budgeting.”
And Newton built on that, saying city leaders needed to ensure residents were given paths to become homeowners.
Scott-Griffin suggested having a city-led lease-to-own option for residents.
Pasadena Bear Creek Neighborhood Association President Aaron Sharpe emphasized his campaign platform of opportunity for all.
The candidates also weighed in on combating homelessness. The topic echoed campaign platforms for each. Newton said he supported maintaining current funding levels for existing programs and work to identify people who need services.
Wheeler-Brown said she feeds the homeless the first Saturday of every month at St. Vincent De Paul.
“They feel that the city isn’t doing enough,” she said and suggested there could be more programs, but educating people in need of the services that do exist is also a key.
The five candidates face each other August 25 for the St. Pete municipal primary election open to only District 7 voters. The top two candidates in that election will square off in the November general election.