It would not be a St. Petersburg City Council candidate debate without someone saying something out of left field.
District 8 candidate Steve Galvin certainly obliged.
Galvin wanted “reclaim” downtown’s Williams Park from the homeless. To make it a family-friendly venue, he went a step further.
“I have floated the idea of putting a historic-type carousel in there,” he said. “Since we closed the Pier, there isn’t any place for families to bring their children downtown.”
Galvin’s comment came up during a serious discussion on homelessness at the “St. Pete Decides” debate at City Hall, hosted by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
USFSP Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Frank Biafora moderated the discussion Wednesday night attended by an audience of about 30, televised on StPeteTV and online at www.stpete.org.
Candidates for four City Council seats debated issues such as community engagement, policing, poverty, jobs and transportation. While most of them stuck with the issues, Galvin’s comment seemed a little off-center.
To her credit, Amy Foster — frontrunner in the District 8 race and no relation to Mayor Bill — did not call out Galvin on his erstwhile carnival. However, she stayed on topic by discussing the importance of affordable housing for Pinellas County’s nearly 6000 homeless, more than a third of them children.
City Council chair Karl Nurse, who is leading in his bid for re-election in District 6, said the city is making “real progress” in the number of homeless, but the struggle is with those with mental health issues. Nurse said he pushed for increased state funding to support city mental health facilities.
For most of the candidates, especially the two incumbents, jobs, housing, poverty and transportation are issues that all intertwine in St. Petersburg.
District 2 incumbent Jim Kennedy discussed his role in developing Greenlight Pinellas, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority initiative proposing improved county transit with efficient bus routes, rapid bus service and light rail.
Greenlight Pinellas will hold a referendum November 2014 to change the ad valorem tax to a one-cent sales tax, with one-third coming from tourism dollars. Light rail is only 25 percent the plan, Kennedy said. The rest will be a countywide effort that combines express bus transit and expanded services.
When District 6 candidate Sharon Russ asked Kennedy how countywide transportation would alleviate poverty in Midtown, he responded that better transportation services are the best way to get people in poorer neighborhoods back and forth to jobs. When a person can quickly get to work, Kennedy said, it helps fight poverty.
“Quickest way to combat poverty is with a job,” Nurse added, saying renovating homes in Midtown is also an excellent job creator.
District 4 frontrunner Darden Rice, a PSTA board member, is also a leading supporter of the Greenlight referendum. She said that if voters approve the sales tax, which increase the county’s transportation resources to $130 million, the plan could increase bus service by as much as 65 percent throughout the county.
Rice’s opponent, former Crescent Lake Neighborhood Association president Carolyn Fries, agreed that voters should have their say. As for herself, however, she would vote no on the tax.
“(Rice) should show up at a few more board meetings,” Fries quipped.
In one of the livelier moments during the hour-long debate, Rice angrily defended her reputation.
“I have one of the best attendance records of the PSTA board,” she replied. “You are wrong, and that is a mischaracterization of my service at the PSTA.”
According to the PSTA website, Rice missed only one regular meeting since Jeff Danner appointed her to the Board of Directors in June 2012. Rice replaced Don Crane as the city’s citizen appointment.
The most revealing answers of the night came when Biafora ended the discussion with an “extra credit” question (it was a USFSP debate, after all) asking the candidates to “brand” St. Petersburg, if they had a 30-second TV spot during Super Bowl.
Foster, who focused on the need for a cohesive plan for the city said, “This is not your grandfather’s St. Pete.”
For Kennedy, emphasizing his experience after years on the council, the city was “where you want to be.” Kennedy’s rival, environmental activist Lorraine Margeson, said “Sweet St. Pete.”
Margeson’s biggest issue as a City Council member would be the effect of rising federal flood insurance rates due to the recently enacted Biggert-Waters act.
Rice said the city could certainly use her campaign slogan, “St. Pete Strong,” while Fries said St. Petersburg was a “domination of the water and arts.”
Russ did not have a catchphrase, but wanted people to know that St. Petersburg is a “city that cares about the future of children.” Nurse would call it “Surprising St. Pete.”
Galvin, after raising eyebrows with his “carousel” comment, was slightly more down to earth on this last answer. The city no longer has the reputation as the “last stop on the train,” a community of nothing but retirees and seniors, he said.
We are “a completely different city” now, he added.