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Conflict of interest? Tonight’s City Council debate moderator has ties to Lisa Wheeler-Brown

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete City Council candidates in District 7 will square off Tuesday night in a second debate leading up to the August 25 primary election. But this debate could come with a conflict of interest.

The group Fight for $15 is co-hosting the debate at the Child’s Park Recreation Center. The group sent out a press release announcing the debate on July 15.

Community activist Kofi Hunt is moderating the debate. He was also one of two media contacts listed on the release and is the Florida political organizer for the group.

But Hunt is also being for campaign work for Lisa Wheeler-Brown. He was paid at least $403 by her campaign for “field program” expenses, according to the latest campaign treasurer reports filed with the city. Wheeler-Brown is one of five candidates running for the District 7 seat and invited to participate in the debate.

It’s not uncommon for groups to host debates even if they typically advocate for certain issues. For example, the League of Women Voters has a long history of hosting citywide debates for local elections. That group typically comes out in favor or opposition for various issues, but never advocates for an individual candidate.

However, in this case, one of the organizers involved with the debate, moderating it and potentially helping to choose the questions for candidates, is a paid campaign contractor for one of the candidates.

A list of questions sent to candidates came directly from Hunt.

Despite the potential conflict of interest between Hunt’s affiliation with the debate and the Wheeler-Brown campaign, the questions do not appear to be skewed toward her candidacy, but the apparent bias could benefit Wheeler-Brown when it comes to looking at the clock.

One of Wheeler-Brown’s top campaign priorities is creating safe neighborhoods. There is only one question listed among those that will potentially be asked that pertains to Wheeler-Brown’s priority.

That question asks, “how would you work to alleviate the concerns of local residents and pursue justice when the people of St. Petersburg are the victims of police overreach and brutality while at the same time serving the law enforcement needs of the community?”

The question is relevant to all candidates because the District 7 community, including some of the city’s poorest residents and home to some of the highest crime rates, has long cried foul over the police department’s policies that many argue make residents feel occupied rather than protected.

Many of those policies, including the city’s chase policy, have been remedied, but there is still work to do and work being done to improve relationships with the community and police.

Regardless, the amount of time and attention given to Wheeler-Brown during the debate may be something worth noting.

Based on the email sent to candidates, the debate format will begin with introductions of candidates and an opening prayer. Candidates will then have two minutes each to give opening statements. The tentative schedule then includes about an hour and 15 minutes for a candidate Q&A in which candidates will have two minutes to respond to questions.

Those questions include topics on housing, living wages, childcare and youth employment.

A couple of the questions are not necessarily issues candidates could affect from the dais. For example, the living wage question acknowledges that state law prohibits local government from setting a minimum wage, but asks whether candidates support the $15 movement. It also asks what candidates would do to close the gap between the current $8.05 minimum wage and the group’s proposed $15 for residents in the city.

Presumably the best any candidate could offer in this area is to work to bring in higher wage jobs and ensure residents have access to the appropriate education and training.

The group also listed a lengthy and complicated question regarding home healthcare asking how candidates would work to “provide patients with appropriate care regardless of their economic resources?” This is another question City Council can do little to affect. A citywide fix would likely be costly and out of the purview of local government.

Organizers of the debate also plan a brief lightning round in which members of the audience may ask “yes” or “no” questions of the candidates.

The debate is co-hosted by the Child’s Park Neighborhood Association. There’s a welcome reception with light snacks from 5:30-6. The debate begins at 6. The Child’s Park Recreation Center is located at 4301 13 Avenue South.

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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