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New City Council means new things for St. Pete

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Two new St. Pete City Council members will cast their first votes from the dais at City Hall this week. Lisa Wheeler-Brown and Ed Montanari will take over for Wengay Newton and Bill Dudley who represented their districts and the city for eight years.

With a new council comes a whole new era in St. Pete politics. But what will that look like?

The obvious is the expected end to the longstanding stalemate over the Tampa Bay Rays and Tropicana Field. With Wheeler-Brown replacing Newton, the 4-4 deadlock is likely to end. Mayor Rick Kriseman wasted no time in bringing a new deal to the council. Kriseman is reportedly meeting with council members this week to test the waters.

St. Pete political insiders expect a vote this month.

But beyond that, priorities and movement in the city could shift even as the board’s face only changed by two. Montanari will likely be a pro-business voice on the board. He’s expected to put a full-scale effort into attracting new businesses.

Among all of St. Pete’s wins throughout the Kriseman administration, bringing a big-name corporate headquarters to the city has failed to grace the list. With a strong-willed, business-minded political powerhouse such as Montanari, that could change.

Montanari also brings to the board a continued conservative voice. Dudley was the only Republican on the nonpartisan board. Montanari will assume that same role. And Montanari will also likely carry Dudley’s ability to keep the nonpartisan aspect of City Council alive and well.

Too often, partisan politics play out on boards even when they’re not supposed to. However, though Montanari may carry with him a sense of fiscal conservatism, he’ll also be pragmatic. And his ability to cross party lines was ever-so-transparent before his election when he attracted an impressively bipartisan coalition of support.

Meanwhile, Wheeler-Brown continues Newton’s progressive leanings on the board, but puts an end to his tendency to stand as a check on the Kriseman administration. Depending on who’s being asked, that can be a good thing or a bad thing.

Kriseman has in Wheeler-Brown an ally on many things St. Petersburg. She’ll likely stand with him on the Rays. She was heavily backed by both Karl Nurse and Darden Rice, both of whom have tended to side with the mayor’s priorities, though not without some pushback.

Residents should also expect Wheeler-Brown to make strides in improving education for St. Pete students, particularly those at the five failing elementary schools in South St. Pete.

Though, because her hands are tied as a member of City Council and NOT the Pinellas County School Board, Wheeler-Brown is likely to ally with the school district as well as the city’s newly appointed education liaison.

Improving education for residents in her district was one of Wheeler-Brown’s campaign promises.

Another priority championed by Kriseman that Wheeler-Brown will likely push is job creation. Where Montanari will be a driving force in bringing larger companies into town, Wheeler-Brown is likely to focus on creating job opportunities in her community through better education, job training, and after-school jobs to give teens a better shot at future success.

Another change to the 2016 City Council is its leadership duo. Amy Foster and Rice, two of the council’s three openly gay members, were sworn in as chairwoman and vice chairwoman over the weekend. The move builds on the city’s already robust commitment to equality that has seen its first openly gay council member elected, its first mayor to be grand marshal of the Gay Pride parade, and the first administration to fly the pride flag in honor of the parade. Kriseman also celebrated Florida’s first day of legalized same-sex marriages by performing a couple’s marriage himself.

Never mind the nod to equality under Foster/Rice leadership. Both have proven political powerhouses during the first half of their first terms. Rice led a powerful push to bring universal curbside recycling to St. Pete, among other key accomplishments, while Foster as made impressive headway in combating nuisance properties in St. Pete like the Mosely Hotel and New Plaza.

The two are politically savvy, smart and driven. With the two women at the helm, there’s no doubt they will only continue to build on the progress made in 2015 under Charlie Gerdes’ watch.

Some other key issues to watch unfold in 2016 include finalizing plans to create a civil citation program for marijuana offenders, increased attention to business and continued emphasis on economic recovery on the Southside.

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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