In a Facebook post Wednesday met with heated commentary, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he planned to “take steps to establish” a Chief Equity Officer position “in keeping with our commitments to building a fairer St. Pete.”
Critics quickly pounced.
On Tuesday, voters rejected two charter amendments on the ballot, Amendment 3 and 4, that would have required “an equity framework” to address equity gaps, create a Chief Equity Officer position to lead the “equity action plan” and, under Amendment 4, establish a funding source to pay for it.
Voters rejected Amendment 3, the framework for the proposal, with just 45% voting in favor, while 56% of voters opposed Amendment 4, the funding mechanism.
Voter turnout on both questions was less than 32%, meaning more than 68% of St. Pete voters didn’t weigh in on the question.
Nevertheless, comments on Kriseman’s post were largely negative.
“The Citizens have spoken and now you want to dictate what ‘you’ want! Obviously, the Citizens don’t see a problem currently and don’t think we need a larger Government to dictate to us what you want,” wrote Ron Kinney, a comment that largely summed up opposition in the thread.
Kriseman’s staff, which often responds to questions and comments on social media, weighed in little but did reply to some comments, reminding constituents that voters rejected putting the Chief Equity Officer position into the City Charter.
Elaborating on that, it’s important to note that the Mayor already has the power to create and eliminate positions. Amendment 3 would have required the position, whether an administration wanted it or not.
Kriseman himself opposed both the framework and funding portions of the proposed charter amendments, leaning instead on executive and legislative authority.
“As our equity focus and plans began to intersect with more and more of our work across departments, whether in economic development or sustainability and resilience or urban affairs or human resources, we began to see a need for a Chief Equity Officer (or similar),” Kriseman Chief of Staff Kevin King told Florida Politics. “The Mayor didn’t oppose the merit of the charter amendment. He just believes that given our form of government, each strong Mayor should have the flexibility to decide how to best organize their administration.”
As Kriseman notes in his Facebook post, adding the equity officer position is “a priority” for his office.
The distinction between executive and legislative authority and charter mandate is crucial. Most opposition to Amendments 3 and 4 centered on that distinction. The Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board, for example, recommended no votes on both measures, not because the equity framework it called for was flawed, but because “there are easier and more streamlined ways to address them” and “the city charter is not the right place to address the issues.”
Some commenters pointed out Kriseman has just two months left in office, so it might make sense to leave the equity officer question for the new administration, which will see Mayor-Elect Ken Welch sworn into office on Jan. 6.
If Kriseman creates a new position, a new administration could undo those steps if that was their will. Under a charter amendment, the change could only be undone through another ballot question. And putting that question on the ballot would require City Council approval.
“We expect our internal processes to be complete and the position created (not necessarily filled) prior to the next administration,” King said.
Welch hasn’t said whether he supports creating the position. He told Florida Politics he will “evaluate and implement the most effective organizational structure and resources to ensure that intentional equity, diversity, and inclusion are embedded in the policies, practices, and operations of the city.”
“I look forward to further speaking with advisers, community stakeholders, and city employees to ensure that we create the most inclusive city in the country,” Welch said.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated City Council approval would be needed for the new position. City Council would not have to approve the position.