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Saturday kicks off new era for St. Petersburg City Council

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Two St. Petersburg City Council members are getting ready to leave City Hall after eight years of service. That means two more are getting ready to take their places.

Bill Dudley and Wengay Newton both served the maximum two terms allowed under the city charter with passion and conviction, and they will be missed. But it’s time to pass the torch to their successors.

At 10 a.m. Saturday at City Hall, Lisa Wheeler-Brown and Ed Montanari will be sworn in to replace the two veteran city leaders.

Wheeler-Brown is inviting supporters to participate in the celebration. A Facebook event page created this week shows that 85 people were invited with more than 30 indicating they plan to attend.

The event marks the culmination of a rocky campaign for Wheeler-Brown. The longtime community activist spent years working in her poverty-stricken Midtown neighborhood in order to boost residents’ cooperation with police. After her son Cabretti‘s 2008 slaying,  Wheeler-Brown struck out into the streets of her community to break down the so-called “no-snitch” code of silence.

She did and, thanks to her efforts, her son’s killer was brought to justice.

But the tragic past and ultimate triumph over it became blurred during what was the nastiest campaign in recent St. Pete history. Wheeler-Brown was first caught up in the middle of a campaign finance controversy after using campaign funds to pay for personal dental work.

More mistakes were later found documenting sloppy bookkeeping and unreported contributions. From there it only got worse. Wheeler-Brown’s past was called into question including minor misdemeanor charges for retail theft and writing a bad check.

A foundation created in her son’s murder was even questioned after discovering there was no paper trail documenting how much money was raised or how it was spent.

At one point there was even a negative third party mailer distributed showing an unflattering photo of Wheeler-Brown with skin visibly darkened.

Supporters were outraged. Ultimately Wheeler-Brown soundly defeated her opponent, Will Newton. On election night she was all smiles, poised to put the nastiness behind her.

On Saturday, that will happen.

Wheeler-Brown will be joined by Montanari for the swearing in ceremony. Though Montanari was elected without opposition, his journey to City Hall was more than eight years in the making.

Montanari narrowly lost to Dudley two terms prior. By the time his turn came around again Montanari had gathered support from the incumbent and an impressive bipartisan group of community leaders.

This Saturday supporters get to watch as one candidate assumes a position she fought back tears to win and another takes on a role he’s been seeking for nearly a decade.

The two new council members also bring with them the potential for major change on City Council. Wheeler-Brown is widely considered the fifth vote needed to advance a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays to allow the baseball team to begin searching for stadium sites outside of St. Pete.

That issue has been pending since 2009.

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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