Five candidates are running to replace City Council member Wengay Newton for his District 7 seat covering parts of South St. Pete including Midtown and Child’s Park. One of them is his brother.
Will Newton, or Winnie as his firefighter friends call him, is a St. Pete native and has lived in his district since the 1980s in the home he purchased then. Newton is a retired firefighter who now works as the district vice president for the Florida Professional Firefighters that covers both Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Newton has volunteered for various groups in the past including the now shuttered Child’s Park Youth Initiative that ushered in a host of other community outreach programs and Safe Place, which gives new mothers a safe place to bring their unwanted child instead of abandoning it in a dangerous place.
But it’s Newton’s experience with the firefighter’s union he says separates him from the pack of other City Council hopefuls.
“The union takes me to Tallahassee every year,” Newton said.
That means he has plenty of experience working with lawmakers to get things done, a skill that could prove beneficial for St. Pete on council where numerous programs go un-funded or under-funded each year.
Newton sat down with SaintPetersblog for an in-depth bio of his priorities and positions on city issues Friday morning. Newton weighed in on three of the most pressing issues currently facing the city.
Though he and his brother share a name, they don’t necessarily share politics.
Wengay Newton has been one of four remaining holdouts on bartering a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays to allow the baseball team to step outside its contract and begin looking for new stadium sites outside the city.
Brother Will said he agrees that the deal isn’t there yet, but sees one being worked out in the not-too-distant future. Newton wouldn’t say exactly what the deal needed to get his vote if he’s elected to council because those are negotiations he said need to be handled between the mayor, city legal staff and the Rays. But Newton did hint at some ideas.
“It’s my hopes that the 85-acre Trop site can be added to the Southside TIF district once the Rays issue is resolved,” Newton said.
Newton was answering a question about how to improve conditions for residents in the impoverished Midtown neighborhood nestled in his district and not in direct reference to his views on a Rays deal. However, the two are inextricably linked.
City Council recently approved the Southside Community Redevelopment Area to provide tax incremental funds for the area contained in it. If the Trop site is included in that district, it could spell millions in additional tax revenues for the district as the site gets developed.
The inference between the two is that Newton may be hoping a new deal brokered between the Mayor and the Rays would include a provision ensuring that would happen.
As it stands, Mayor Rick Kriseman’s current deal with the Rays is deadlocked among council 4-4. Council members Steve Kornell, Jim Kennedy, Bill Dudley and Wengay Newton have been holdouts from the get-go. Council member Amy Foster has shifted her no-vote on the deal to a yes leaving Charlie Gerdes, Karl Nurse and Darden Rice the other yeses.
Of the no-votes, only Wengay Newton is certain to be replaced on council. Bill Dudley is being replaced by Ed Montanari who has said he won’t vote for the deal and Steve Kornell is likely to cruise to an easy re-election.
“That’s why this race is so important,” Newton said.
The fate of the Rays could very well rest on Newton’s shoulders if he’s elected. Newton’s biggest competition for the seat, community activist Lisa Wheeler-Brown, had previously indicated she would likely vote for the Mayor’s deal.
The Rays are seeking a Memorandum of Understanding with the city that would allow the team to look at alternative stadium sites outside of St. Pete in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties only. The idea is to keep the team local even if not in St. Pete.
However, holdouts on council worry the deal is too sweet for the Rays who still have a contract to play ball at Tropicana Field until 2027. The current deal would require about $20 million from the Rays if they played ball somewhere else before the contract is up, according to the most optimistic estimates.
While the Rays issue is perhaps the most vexing, Newton isn’t setting his sights on that alone, but a potential deal could give him the means by which to continue on his brother’s progress improving youth programs for kids living in poverty.
Newton wants to tackle both under and unemployment in District 7 neighborhoods by moving people out of poverty and into the middle class. He said doing that requires attracting employers who can offer living wage jobs. He said those priorities require a combination of multiple ingredients to be successful and that’s where his negotiating skills can come in handy.
Newton also weighed in on the other thorn currently sticking in the sides of St. Pete officials. It’s also another topic on which the two Newtons don’t necessarily see eye to eye.
Wengay Newton has long been a staunch critic of demolishing the existing Pier to make way for a new one. Time and time again he’s side with residents who want to save the inverted pyramid.
Will Newton didn’t say whether he favored the iconic existing pyramid or not, but he does support moving forward with the process.
“Could the process have been better? Of course,” Newton said. “But this has been going on a long time and we are at a place now where things are happening.”
It’s a much easier topic for Newton to weigh in on than the Rays. By the time a new City Council member is inaugurated, the path may already be clear. The city is itching to demolish the inverted pyramid as soon as they have the required permits to do so. That wrecking ball could make opposition efforts moot.
But there is still a looming petition drive that could throw a monkey wrench in that process. If that petition drive becomes a formidable force, as it did with the Lens just a couple of years ago, Newton said he would be open to listening to the people.
As for recycling, Newton hopes the city can find a way to work with the 40 percent of residents who live in traditional neighborhoods where trash is collected from the alleyways and not curbside.
He suggested a few things for the city to consider including providing a large community bin at an accessible point in the alley where trucks, dubbed too big to navigate the alleys safely, could collect recycling. Though, Newton acknowledges that could create problems with contamination.
He also suggested clearing alleys of any low hanging tree branches or other barriers creating un-navigable alleys. But perhaps his most unique solution lies in talking to the people who may know best – the recycling truck drivers.
“Ask them, what can we do to get a truck down this alley,” Newton said.
Aside from Wheeler-Brown, Newton also faces Code Enforcement board chair Aaron Sharpe, Sheila Scott Griffin and Elvert Lewis Stephens. The Primary Election is August 25. Mail ballots go out next week to voters who requested them. Ballots have already been sent to overseas voters.