St. Pete City Council Archives - Page 4 of 31 - SaintPetersBlog

Darden Rice nominated 2016 PSTA board chair

In what turned out to be a very close vote, St. Pete City Council member Darden Rice was voted 2016 chair of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board Wednesday. Rice squeaked by Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward-Bujalski seven votes to six.

“I’m tremendously honored,” Rice said of the nomination. “Leadership is so important now.”

Bujalski’s defeat in the vote to succeed Clearwater City Council member Bill Jonson to head the board may have stemmed from a controversial motion she made earlier this year to oust CEO Brad Miller.

Instead the board implemented a turnaround plan and will re-evaluate Miller’s performance next year.

“Darden has been an asset to PSTA through her leadership as Legislative Committee Chair, as well as her hard work and dedication to the Planning Committee. I have no doubt that Darden will do a great job of helping to continue to move PSTA forward and in the right direction,” Miller said of Rice’s nomination.

Rice will have her hands full in the coming year as chair.

“PSTA is in such a different spot than we were a year ago,” Rice said.

This time last year PSTA was recovering from fresh wounds surrounding the Greenlight Pinellas defeat that robbed the agency of an additional $100 million in funding each year through a one-penny sales tax hike.

Since then the agency has managed to begin turning wheels on new transit improvement projects despite looming insolvency fears.

As chair, Rice will oversee the Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project that will shuttle riders between downtown St. Pete and the beaches in less than half the time it currently takes to get between the two popular destinations.

She’ll also continue work on another BRT project in its early phases that would run between Tampa International Airport and Clearwater Beach.

“We can’t have emergency vehicles getting stuck on 60,” Rice said of the project’s importance.

She added it also shouldn’t take up to two hours for visitors to get from the airport to Clearwater Beach, which is Pinellas County’s biggest contributor to bed tax dollars.

Rice said she also looks forward to working with the County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization in completing “complete street” projects that would improve not just transportation, but also safety as well by ensuring access for pedestrians and bicycles, among other aspects.

The vote is likely to draw some scrutiny from the usual suspects often critical of PSTA’s inner workings including activist Tom Rask. A conversation in an earlier meeting yielded a potential Sunshine Law violation when a nominating member mentioned speaking with Rice about her interest in being chair.

That conversation was brought back into the Sunshine by disclosing it during a public meeting and any complaints arising are likely to go away as quickly as they surface.

And Rice is intent on being a strong leader for PSTA, especially against tough critics like Rask. In a recent meeting he even went so far as to complain about the font used in a PSTA document. Rice isn’t likely to put up with those sorts of distractions and instead will likely focus her efforts on furthering PSTA dialogue.

The board members who sided with Rice to chair the board next year include Pinellas County Commissioners Pat Gerard and Janet Long, St. Pete City Council member Wengay Newton, St. Pete resident Ben Diamond, Largo City Commissioner Samantha Fenger, Reddington Beach Commissioner Mark Deighton and Rice.

Joining team Bujalski were Pinellas County Commissioners Ken Welch and Dave Eggers, Clearwater City Council member Bill Jonson, Belleair Bluffs vice-mayor Joseph Barkley and Oldsmar Mayor Doug Bevis.

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Sylvia’s of Harlem faces eviction

The Midtown Restaurant Sylvia’s of Harlem may be getting evicted from its newly renovated home in the area’s historic Manhattan Casino. The restaurant owes the city more than $60,000 in things like rent, late fees and bounced payments.

The city’s legal department mailed notice to Sylvia’s this week demanding payment in full of the amount owed. To remain in compliance with the city, Sylvia’s must pay up by the 29th of this month. If they fail to do so, the city’s legal department said Thursday they will begin the eviction process.

According to City Council member Jim Kennedy who delivered a report on the council Budget, Finance and Taxation committee last month, the city has tried unsuccessfully to work with Sylvia’s to ensure the famed restaurant could stay in the building.

Kennedy said the Harlem, New York-based parent restaurant has not been as involved in the St. Pete location as the city had hoped. There were also bonds issued for the restaurant to start up. The issuers of those bonds have not stepped up to the plate to make right the money owed the city.

Sylvia’s opened on 22nd Street South in Midtown in November of 2013. It took up residence in the 1920’s dance hall, The Manhattan Casino. Celebrities the likes of James Brown, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughn visited the hall.

The original Sylvia’s opened in Harlem in 1962 with famous chef Sylvia Woods. To this day that restaurant is still operated by the Woods family.

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St. Pete City Council approves seed money for ferry service

St. Pete City Council members approved $350,000 for ferry service that would connect downtown St. Pete to Tampa. The funding comes from money the city was awarded as part of the BP oil spill settlement. The move comes as Council members continue to hold off on allocating larger funding proposals from the $6.5 pot.

The funding is contingent on funding from other sources including Pinellas County, the state and Tampa. The ferry would run as a five-month pilot during winter months when ferries aren’t used in northern cities like New York and Boston where they are common.

The city plans to rent a single ferry during those months to see how the project works before expanding into a longer-term service.

City Council chair Charlie Gerdes said he’s not worried about demand because there is so much traffic congestion in Tampa. He thinks people making the commute between the two cities for work are likely to welcome an additional transportation choice.

However, a single ferry would not provide the kind of reliable service necessary for most users to count on for transportation for professional purposes.

In previous discussions about ferry service, council members have also expressed interest in boosting attendance at Rays home games by offering additional transit options between the two cities.

Despite lacking complete funding, the city is moving forward with hunting for ferry providers for the project. The ferry project proposed by St. Pete officials is independent another being worked on in Tampa that would connect South Tampa to MacDill Air Force Base and eventually to Channelside and St. Pete if the initial project was successful.

That project is being pushed by former Tampa Mayoral candidate Ed Turanchik.

City Council members also voted to approve spending $250,000 toward the replacement of a USF research vessel known as the Bellows. The Florida Institute of Oceanography is estimated to spend as much as $500,000 annually in the city.

Both projects are contingent on outside funding for completion.

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St. Pete’s Acheson-Mackey Home gets local historic designation

The St. Petersburg City Council unanimously approved an ordinance providing local historic designation of a home located at 3900 9th Street North known as the Acheson-Mackey Home.

Allendale Terrace creator Cade B. Allen built the stone residence in 1931. The home stands today as Allen’s most defining work.

Real estate developer Nick Ekonomou now owns the home. He had initially been opposed to local historic designation. Instead the Allendale Crime Watch Association filed a third party application to designate the home and the property. After negotiations with Ekonomou, the association was able to come to an agreement both parties were satisfied with to present to Council for approval.

The agreement includes three lots instead of the six proposed in the original application. That limits the designated property to just the southern lots. The change also now includes the home’s garage that was also built in 1931 and gives the owner rights to relocate the garage to be on the same lot as the home.

The ordinance approved by Council also changes the name of the applicant from the Allendale Crime Watch Association to Ekonomou.

“The only reason I purchased this was that I loved the home,” Ekonomou said. “I never intended to do anything but bring this home back to its previous glory.”

There was overwhelming support for the home’s historic designation. Because City Council didn’t get to the item until about 9 p.m. many speakers had left, but most turned in cards voicing support. Only a couple of people voiced any objection.

One critic, neurosurgeon David McKalip, voiced his concerns over the process, but not necessarily the Acheson-Mackey Home in particular.

“The process has been flawed and political and very concerning,” McKalip said. “I am concerned that there was a bit of strong-arm tactics used to create this designation.”

But even McKalip didn’t specifically say the home should not be designated a local historic landmark. And if he had, it would have been difficult to compete with at least one resident showing up to offer support – Burton Allen, Cade Allen’s son.

“I remember when it was being built. Dad had all of us boys working,” Allen said. “There’s a lot of fond memories growing up there.”

The Allen family never actually got to live in the home. Cade Allen originally intended for it to be the family home, but as economic conditions continued to worsen in the wake of the Great Depression, he was forced to sell it instead.

Allen learned of Edward Acheson, a famous inventor who spent winters in St. Petersburg. Acheson had worked with Thomas Edison experimenting with a conducting carbon that could be used in Edison’s light bulbs.

Allen traveled to New York to meet with Acheson and, as his son described it to council, came back with a contract.

The home’s stone façade is indicative of Allen’s work. He often shipped in various types of stone from other parts of the country for the exterior of homes he built.

According to the city, Allen’s development was a significant driver in St. Pete for future development. The Acheson-Mackey home shaped design in the area from the 20s all the way through to the 50s. The home was intended to stand as a showcase of Allen’s talent and skills.

Under the local historic designation, Ekonomou may still make changes to the home and even demolish it, but he would have to obtain the appropriate permits to do so.

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St. Pete City Council won’t spend $1.5 million on sewers … yet

St. Pete City Council members voted not to allocate $1.5 million of the $6.5 million paid out as a result of the BP oil spill settlement to pay for sewage infrastructure repairs at a meeting Monday evening.

Instead, the council voted 7-0 to ask staff to come back next week with a resolution highlighting the city’s commitment to increasing funding for the projects.

At issue is whether or not the city should use BP settlement funds for sewage repairs or instead allocate that money to other projects in the city. City Council member Karl Nurse, who has been the most vocal about spending BP funds on sewers, was the one who made the motion not to allocate the money at this time.

The decision came after a flurry of public comment showing residents are concerned about how the BP money is spent. Other suggestions for the money proposed for sewers included more money for the arts including Mayor Rick Kriseman’s proposed $1million endowment using BP funds, youth program and other economic stabilization uses in South St. Pete and homelessness.

Prominent community activist Momma Tee Lassiter suggested splitting the BP funds up evenly throughout each district in the City. She lambasted council for not taking bigger strides in improving the impoverished Midtown and Childs Park neighborhood and likened the city’s use of funds to running a family.

“When you’re running a family you all have got to look out for everybody,” Lassiter said.

The resolution City Council voted to ask for would also include provisions about ensuring commitment to a long-term study evaluating what the city needs to shore up its crumbling sewer infrastructure.

“The good news is that this is forcing us to have the conversation about how to we pay to upgrade our sewer system,” Nurse said.

The conversation is also hot on the heels of another last week during a committee meeting in which voting councilmembers unanimously approved spending the $1.5 million on sewers – $500,000 more than Kriseman had proposed. During that same meeting, however, some council members expressed concern about spending one-time money on recurring costs.

During that meeting Darden Rice called the idea “wrongheaded,” though she was not a voting member of the committee. During this Monday’s meeting Rice said she heard the voices of the people loud and clear on “hitting the pause button.” But she worried the discussion was pitting key city issues against one another.

“We can prioritize,” she reminded members.

The resolution is expected to come back to council next Thursday. It’s not clear when, or if, the council will re-evaluate spending BP funds on sewers following that meeting.

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Anthony Holloway would consider gun cameras for St. Pete officers

St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway would consider putting cameras on his officers if he could purchase ones that were mounted on officers’ guns. That way, video would start anytime an officer unholstered his/her weapon.

“If I pull my weapon than it’s recorded and you’ll see everything that happened,” Holloway said during a City Council update Monday afternoon. “That solves the privacy issues.”

Holloway was referring to his stance on body cameras in which he frequently sites concerns that victims’ privacy rights could be violated. One of his oft-sited examples was that an officer tending to a victim’s home following a crime could conceivably lead to video of that person’s home being captured and subject to public record.

But, even without the gun-mounted cameras, Holloway said the agency expects a white paper to be released next year evaluating the usefulness of body cameras and the agency will look into the issue further. That White Paper is expected sometime in August.

Holloway was speaking to council as part of a quarterly report. He boasted several wins for the police agency including community crime tips from the community being on the rise, the success of the Park, Walk, Talk program and absence of crime being found as a result of cameras being on the Pinellas trail.

But council member Karl Nurse expressed concerns about the numbers of officers on the street staying stagnant. City Council approved the 2016 fiscal year budget including an increase to the police department to pay for a reserve unit.

Holloway explained it takes time for new hires to actually hit the streets, especially if they come in untrained and have to go through the police academy. He said the agency just hired 18 new officers, but residents won’t actually see them on the streets until August.

“For the next three years we’re going to be busy hiring a lot of people,” Holloway said noting there are a large number of officers about ready to retire. “When we hire them with no skill it’s 8 months before we see them.”

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St. Pete City Council committee wants to spend $1.5 million on sewers

A St. Pete City Council committee voted Monday to spend $1.5 million of the total $6.5 million awarded the city as a result of a settlement in the BP oil spill disaster.

St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman had recommended spending $1 million for infrastructure repairs and replacement.

Earlier discussions about the BP oil spill award showed some City Council members wanted to spend more of the money on immediate repairs in the wake of 31 million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage being dumped into Tampa Bay, Clam Bayou and the Eckerd College campus after a heavy rain event in early August.

Currently there are $15 million worth of work that needs to be done to make immediate repairs in order to avoid another sewage dump. City Council member Karl Nurse is among those who want to spend money right away.

However a memo sent out last week from City Administrator Gary Cornwell recommended City Council vote to borrow funds rather than take a pay as you go approach to repairs and suggested BP funds not be used for ongoing expenses, but rather on one-time projects.

In addition to recommending that City Council borrow the $15 million needed for immediate repairs he also said it’s possible to reallocate money from $30 million in existing bonds.

The memo explained that borrowing was advisable because increases in sewer rates would be “negligible.”

Cornwell sent the memo after receiving results of several scenarios addressing the city’s crumbling sewage infrastructure and hearing from some members of City Council, including Karl Nurse and Charlie Gerdes, in which members thought it may be more appropriate to spend at least half the BP settlement funds on sewage.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, neither Nurse nor Gerdes changed their minds following the memo last week. Nurse echoed that in a Budget Finance and Taxation meeting Thursday morning.

Darden Rice called the idea of spending one-time settlement funds on recurring expenses a good intention, but said it was still a bad idea noting that the issue has been politicized to a level above sound fiscal policy decisions. Rice, however, is not a voting member of the BF&T committee.

The board did not take up the issue during a City Council meeting later in the afternoon. It’s likely they will take a vote later this year.

The city is currently studying the aging system. That report is expected in March.

Though the committee approved an amount only slightly higher than Kriseman’s proposal for BP funds, the memo urging council not to spend BP money on sewers wasn’t mentioned much.

In a Times story last week, Nurse compared financing to making a repair to a private residence insinuating homeowners wouldn’t likely finance such a repair. During the meeting Monday he reiterated that financing doesn’t make sense.

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Momma Tee Lassiter: Activist or antagonist?

When does a person’s civic activism go too far?

Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter is perhaps the feistiest of engaged citizens in St. Petersburg. She attends every meeting. She’s seen in the background of many city news conferences, business openings and ribbon cuttings.

She backs candidates and condemns others.

And sometimes she’s thrown out of meetings.

Elected officials in St. Pete know Momma Tee well. Other engaged citizens know her well. But for those who don’t there are a few things you should know about Momma Tee. First, she’s a Republican. She was former Mayor Bill Foster’s loudest cheerleader and doesn’t seem to care quite as much for Rick Kriseman.

She’s loud. Momma Tee yells when she’s happy — things like “praise Jesus” — and yells when she’s angry.

She refers to herself as “the community activist” seeming to imply she’s the only one. She’s not.

She’s not afraid to wag her finger at City Council, the Mayor or City staff. Sometimes, Momma Tee makes some really good points. For example, never has there been as staunch a supporter for community revitalization in poor, mostly black neighborhoods than Momma Tee.

But back to that yelling when she’s angry thing. At some point Momma Tee’s bombastic comments and rude and disruptive behavior need to be shamed.

During a City Council meeting Thursday that went from 8:30 a.m. until well after dinnertime Momma Tee spoke on just about every single item open to public comment. And every single time she stepped up to the podium she was unnecessarily mean.

People tend to take Momma Tee’s antagonistic tone with a grain of salt. Watching a live stream of Thursday’s meeting viewers could see a woman sitting in the background behind Momma Tee laughing while she spoke. At one point the woman, who probably had no idea she was on video, even covered her face.

But the, ‘she’s just a little old lady with spunk’ justification for bad behavior should not be tolerated. Momma Tee should have been thrown out of City Hall Thursday. A woman with a baby was once asked to leave because her child was cooing. COOING. That’s cute, right? But when Momma Tee storms away from the podium blurting a string of obscenities, she’s allowed to sit down and waste an additional thirty seconds or two minutes or however it plays out yelling from her seat.

The First Amendment is a grand thing. Freedom of speech is an amazing right Americans enjoy every single day. It’s sometimes abused by people like members of the Westboro Baptist Church who think it’s fun to picket funerals and call people fags. But it’s a right worth fighting for.

What gets forgotten about the First Amendment is it doesn’t mean you get to throw decorum and civic process out the window. There are rules for engaging elected officials during public meetings that have to be followed. I’m not sure if cursing at city leaders is against the rules or not, but if it isn’t, it should be.

Last night, Momma Tee told City Council member Wengay Newton to “sit the hell back” and told the entire board she was “sick of all y’all.” She used the word “damn” several times and she chastised a transgender person to the point of near tears and then muttered something about Satan.

At one point she told the board, “if it was rainin’ brains, y’all wouldn’t get wet” seeming to imply they had no brains — though the statement didn’t really make much sense.

Not once was she ever asked to leave. The worst that ever came Momma Tee’s way was City Council chair Charlie Gerdes correcting her when she said the city never does anything under budget. He told her, in a not-so-soft sort of tone, that was just not true.

Every city has its Momma Tee. Every county, too. If you ever go to a Pinellas County Commission or School Board meeting be sure to watch out for Mark Klutho who calls everyone a moron. In Tampa, there’s Ed Tillou who talks off topic and rarely makes sense. A fellow writer told me about six people in Jacksonville who each have their own amusing, if not irritating M.O.

These people all have the right to speak, of course. And elected leaders are correct to take it in stride, pretend to pay attention and maybe even care. But they are not right to ignore bad behavior.

When Momma Tee was asked to lower her voice Thursday, she blamed the city for having the volume on the microphone turned up to high. No one followed up and her voice continued to pierce City Council chambers.

I don’t know whether City Council members are afraid to piss off Momma Tee or afraid to trample the First Amendment, but I think I can speak for a lot of people who sit through City Council meetings when I say Momma Tee needs to be put in check.

Next time she decides to curse at an elected official, I say give her the boot. After all, the children she claims to so passionately support could be watching.

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Grand Prix to race in St. Pete through 2020

The St. Pete Grand Prix got the green flag to race in downtown until 2020. The original deal would have expired in 2017.

Chris Ballestra, the city’s managing director of development coordination, told City Council the administration had negotiated with the company Green Savoree to secure an updated contract that allows the Indy Car race to continue in St. Pete while still protecting residents and the city’s interests.

The new deal includes about an extra $350,000 in benefits to the city. Direct and indirect economic impact to the city totals about $500 million.

Amended language in the agreement includes protection that the Grand Prix will be raced. It also adds a guaranteed date for the second weekend in March for the next three years.

An earlier version of the agreement allowed the city to choose preferred dates, but did not guarantee a time frame. That left the city with less time to prepare residents and get the area ready.

In the past downtown residents have complained there are too many road closures for too long in the area. Because the track takes time to assemble and disassemble, some roadways were sometimes closed for several weeks. The new agreement reduces setup time by four days, minimizing the impact to residents.

“Any time that we can carve out of that is a benefit to the community as a whole,” Ballestra said.

There is also a new provision that pays the city $1.00 for every ticket sold above 140,000. That’s a threshold Ballestra estimated has been reached in at least three of the past five years and one of those years was a rain-out. Last year’s attendance broke records.

But not everyone was entirely sold on the deal. City Council member Wengay Newton, an oft-vocal force on council, challenged Ballestra about how much the city really gained from the Grand Prix.

And Jim Kennedy suggested an alternative. He said he researched creating a city “sports corporation” that would allow the city to run the Grand Prix and not a third-party organization, thus maximizing the city’s profits.

“We’re talking about the city of St. Petersburg from 2018 through 2020,” Kennedy said. “I acknowledge it’s not the job of this council to negotiate, but I don’t feel as if we have had the opportunity to fully evaluate the concept of a sports corp., what it can do for the city and how we can then control our own destiny and make more money.”

Council members were not opposed to looking into such an arrangement, but most expressed concern over whether not the timing was appropriate and whether the city was equipped to handle such an undertaking.

“We may not have the competence or the expertise to do this yet,” said City Councilwoman Darden Rice.

Even Mayor Rick Kriseman popped down from his upstairs office to squash the idea.

“[Indy Car has] no interest in dealing with a different entity,” Kriseman said.

He noted that they want to continue as is and worked hard negotiating with the city to do so because the race has been so successful. And under the third-party management model, the city shifts its potential financial burden for hosting the race to Green Savoree.

“If we were running this race and we had a rain out like they had in New Orleans, than our taxpayers are on the hook,” Kriseman explained.

Amy Foster suggested an alternative compromise that would have extended the contract to 2018 instead of 2020. That effort was ultimately voted down with only council members Newton, Karl Nurse and Kennedy voting in favor of it.

Kennedy was the only council member to vote against the original motion to approve a contract extension through 2020.

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St. Pete moves swiftly to repair elderly woman’s home

“Who says government can’t act?”

That was the question posed by St. Pete City Council chair Charlie Gerdes Thursday morning after what turned out to be a feel good action by the board.

Annie Franklin, a South St. Pete resident, delivered a tearful plea to City Council asking for help getting a lock fixed on her home. It was broken after a fire erupted at another home at the end of her block.

Franklin described through tears that there was no smoke or flames coming from her home.

Firefighters sometimes are forced to breach homes neighboring other structure fires if there appears to be any chance the fire has spread. But this, City Council acknowledged, was a mistake.

City Council voted unanimously to appropriate up to $1,000 to fix Franklin’s lock and was taking immediate steps to have a member of St. Pete Fire and Rescue respond to her home to ensure it is secure.

Franklin’s husband passed away one month ago and she is a licensed foster care worker. Franklin said she was afraid because she was now alone in the home. She also worried she could lose her license to foster children if the problem wasn’t remedied.

“The sooner the better,” said City Council member Bill Dudley.

City Council usually has to schedule a public hearing in order to appropriate funds. But because the amount was so small city legal staff recommended opening the floor to any speakers in the gallery interested in commenting.

One speaker came forward not with concerns about the appropriation, but to offer to pay for the repair out of his own pocket if there was any problem funding it through the city.

Franklin was the first to speak during Thursday’s open forum. Her emotional plea followed by swift action surely stood as a good start to what is often a long day for City Council members.

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