Some St. Petersburg City Council candidates disagree on whether City Council seats should be voted on only within district boundaries. Currently, individual districts are open to voting only within the district in the Primary Election. Voting opens citywide in the General Election.
A proposed charter amendment would change that by closing voting even in the General to only district voters.
District 6 candidates, including incumbent Gina Driscoll and challenger Mhariel Summers, debated Wednesday at a Suncoast Tiger Bay Club forum. District 2 incumbent Brandi Gabbard also participated despite the absence of her challenger, Kyle Hall.
The candidates, who, for the most part, provided similar platforms, differed when asked their thoughts on the city charter amendment, which will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot along with candidates for City Council and Mayor.
Incumbents sided with the status quo, while challengers preferred the new closed district proposal.
Summers argued the change could provide more opportunities for grassroots candidates, cutting out the high cost of campaigning citywide.
“There’s a lot of big money,” Summers said about local politics. “So, you can have an opponent who has a much weaker platform, a much weaker message, that potentially has the revenue to reach a higher number of people.”
Summers also insisted that if the vote was districtwide, she would take the election.
Driscoll, on the other hand, completely rejected the amendment, arguing it would further divide the city and the current citywide General Election format keeps Council members accountable to all city constituents.
“Sectioning us off and dividing us into eight districts that we only have to serve the people of that district, when we have votes that affect everyone in our city, is just as a disservice to the people,” Driscoll said. “We all vote for everything that happens in our city, and so we all need to be accountable to everyone.”
Driscoll also said the change would make it easier to campaign, and “money is going to come in” if a candidate’s message is strong enough.
“An amendment like this might make campaigning easier, but do you really want it to be easy?” Driscoll said. “You want the ones who worked the hardest to be serving you on City Council, and that means, if you have a strong message, that you have the support, the money is going to come in.”
To note, Driscoll and her opponent have a substantial fundraising gap. Driscoll, between her campaign and political committee Friends of Gina Driscoll, has raised a total of $174,008. Summers, however, has collected only $7,099.
Gabbard, meanwhile, sided with Driscoll, pointing to the concept of being held accountable by all city residents. She also said a citywide vote forces City Council members to be knowledgeable on all issues facing residents.
“The only way that you know what those issues are, especially when you’re a first time candidate, is by going out and talking to voters all across the city, and working hard to earn their vote and hearing what is most important to them,” Gabbard said. “I will tell you that knocking on doors is free, knocking on doors is the best free education you can ever get, and it’s all hard work.”