Campaigns for three City Council seats in St. Petersburg perked up again Wednesday night at the Sunshine Center, with Duke Energy as the main target.
Five candidates on the November ballot took verbal shots at Duke following the utility’s failure to keep its own self-imposed deadline to restore power to thousands of Pinellas County residents following Hurricane Irma’s descent into the Bay area last week.
“I would love to see us find a way to somehow fund a long-term plan of burying power lines,” said Brandi Gabbard, the District 2 candidate who lost power at her home in Barclay Estates until last Thursday. “I also think that we need to make sure that we’re holding Duke accountable for keeping those trees trimmed off of our power lines because I know a lot of people lost power because there were trees that needed to be trimmed months and years ago.”
“The biggest problem with Duke Energy seems to be constituent service,” said Barclay Harless, running against Gabbard in District 2.
Harless said future council members should work with Duke during power outages to communicate about restoration efforts; he added that Duke didn’t seem very interested in pursuing that service last week.
“It’s unacceptable that 72 percent of Pinellas County was without power,” said Gina Driscoll, the District 6 candidate. “We can do better than that. We really should hold that business accountable and see how we can help that this is something that doesn’t happen again in the future.”
City Council Chair Darden Rice, running for re-election in District 4, said that losing power was a huge economic issue, and mentioned how the city did allocate $9 million for putting power lines underground in the Skyway Marina District plan. “It’s really about time we look at doing that in other parts of the city as well,” she said, adding that it was probably too expensive to implement throughout the entire city, but could reimplement in areas hit the hardest last week.
“I’ve seen a great lack of tree trimming in my neighborhood,” added Rice’s opponent, Jerick Johnston.
The candidate forum was the first time that the 21-year Johnston appeared in a debate this summer, and the USFSP student often seemed overwhelmed in the relatively relaxed setting. Frequently, microphones did not pick up his soft-voiced comments; members of the audience chided Johnston to speak directly into the mic.
The forum was also the first time that Harless and Gabbard had indeed engaged in a formal candidate forum; both were impressive.
“I want to become the councilman who fights for small businesses,” said Harless, who works in the banking industry. His focus is on improving infrastructure, reducing crime and finding more affordable housing for St. Pete residents, Harless said.
Gabbard, who has worked in real estate for more than a decade, currently sits on the city’s Program for Public Information on Flood Insurance task force. As a flood insurance advocate, she says her experience on the issue will be a big plus.
“Pinellas County is ground zero,” Gabbard said. “Pinellas County has more homes affected by grandfathering and by this issue that we’re having with base flood elevation than any other place in the entire country.”
Candidates were skeptical on cost increases for the Pier, though Rice said she was extremely comfortable with how the issue has been handled. She emphasized how the additional $20 million that has been added to the project is for the Downtown Waterfront plan and is separate from the original $50 million earmarked for the Pier head.
Harless called it a “travesty” that the original motivation for a new Pier was to reduce the operational costs for the city, yet current projections will make it higher. Rice counterchecked him, saying that when the council removed one of the restaurants out of a plan for the Pier, it allowed the subsidy to increase because it now applies to a much greater area.
“We’re now talking about 26 acres, instead of five, so I would just encourage people to think about the context about some of these numbers,” she said.
Driscoll, who narrowly qualified last month for the District 6 general election, seemed more confident in her responses than her sometimes tentative performance in earlier forums. When asked about her plans for the Southside, which is part of District 6, Driscoll wanted to see the sun “shine on all parts of St. Petersburg.”
“We want better schools for our kids to go to, we want safer streets, sidewalks that aren’t broken,” she said. “The resources that are needed to build community wealth need to be directed to Midtown. That’s the only way that we can bring up one of the most neglected parts of our city. We cannot call ourselves a success as a city until we go out and help those who need it the most.”
All of the candidates said they supported an ordinance that would ultimately ban plastic bans in the city, though they all stated that they wanted to pass the law in a way that didn’t hurt small businesses.
Justin Bean, the 30-year-old businessman who led with the most votes in the District 6 primary, did not attend the debate. A statement he sent was read aloud by the moderator saying he regretted missing the forum due to business he was conducting out of town.