When Darden Rice proposed earlier this year that the city hire four full-time legislative aides to assist the eight-member St. Petersburg City Council conduct policy research and reform constituent services, she thought it would be relatively non-controversial.
“I couldn’t imagine anyone making this a campaign issue,” said Rice, who serves as the board’s chair. “Frankly, it’s long overdue and we all know it.”
That seems to be the case, based on how few people had publicly discussed a charter amendment for the November ballot to allow the council to weigh in on hiring decisions for new management and non-management professional positions, as well as staffing in the city council’s office.
However, the issue did surface at a candidate’s forum Tuesday night in West St. Petersburg. Disston Heights Civic Association President Jennifer Joern, whose organization hosted the event, asked the six candidates if they believed that the job should be a full-time position.
“Well it is full time,” Rice quipped to laughs (though she appeared deadly serious) while looking at the other five candidates at the table. “Just in case anyone was under any illusions.”
Council members say they work on council issues 40-50 hours a week, though the position is officially considered “part-time” and pays an annual salary of $44,452.
While she does not support a pay increase for herself, Rice said she might support one for the position after leaving office, because she believes it could attract more quality people to run, particularly those who can’t afford to do so now due to salary limitations.
None of the other five candidates were willing to disagree with Rice about pay raises — and possibly commit political suicide — but most agreed that the job is hardly part-time.
They also agreed that hiring the legislative aides was a good idea.
“It allows research to be done, it allows decisions to be made,” said Barclay Harless, the District 2 candidate.
District 6 hopeful Gina Driscoll agrees it should be a full-time job “because the city deserves our full-time attention.”
She said hiring assistants would obviate a need for higher salaries for council members.
“This position is a public service,” said Justin Bean, who is facing Driscoll in District 6. “I don’t think it should be a full-time job. I think of this as a public service, you give your time, and if you’re able to do that, it’s an honor to be able to serve.”
On Nov. 7, St. Petersburg voters will be asked to approve a measure releasing The Vinoy Renaissance Hotel from restrictions on 2.3 acres of property so it can construct a one-story parking garage with elevated tennis courts (at no cost to the taxpayers or an increase in the hotel’s footprint).
Voters in St. Pete and across Pinellas County will also consider extending the Penny for Pinellas tax for ten more years.