The city of St. Petersburg will begin taking applications Friday for the District 7 City Council vacancy created last week after former Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman resigned.
The application window will close Oct. 3 at noon, City Council members determined during a Committee of the Whole meeting establishing the process to appoint Wheeler-Bowman’s replacement.
The Council is working quickly to meet a 45-day deadline to name a replacement, which closes Oct. 30.
They will meet again Oct. 6 when candidates will be invited to provide opening statements and closing remarks and members of the public, and Council members will have the opportunity to ask questions of the candidates.
Council members hope to reach consensus on a candidate at that meeting, which would allow the new appointee to be sworn in at the Oct. 13 Council meeting.
Former City Council member Wengay Newton and Childs Park community activist Brother John Muhammad have reportedly expressed interest in seeking an appointment, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Newton previously held the seat from 2008 until 2016. Wheeler-Bowman succeeded him in the District after defeating Newton’s brother, Will Newton, in the 2015 election. She was subsequently re-elected in 2019, but resigned after allegations she moved outside the district, which immediately disqualified her from the position.
Muhammad was present at Thursday’s meeting, as was Corey Givens Jr., who has unsuccessfully sought elected office before.
Council members laid out several procedural details for the appointment process, including an application, which must be delivered to City Hall in-person, a clearly defined residency requirement, financial disclosures and a robust public comment process.
Members of the public will be permitted to submit questions about applicants to the Council and will have a 30-minute window to speak during the Oct. 6 meeting.
To be appointed, an applicant must receive a majority of votes from remaining Council members, an easy hurdle considering that with Wheeler-Bowman’s departure there are now an odd number of members at seven.
Council members expect a series of three balloting votes to whittle the applicant pool before taking a binding vote.
Members extensively discussed how best to engage members of the public in the appointment process, specifically to ensure their voices are heard while also maintaining an efficient process.
Council Chair Gina Driscoll asked whether there was a way to limit public questions submitted online to issues relevant to city business, similar to the rule the Council employs for public comment during open forum at City Council meetings.
“People sometimes email us or ask us questions on more national issues, which if they came to open forum, that would not be permitted. I don’t know what it is that allows us to restrict open forum … but if there is a way we can apply that same requirement to members of the public, I don’t want to be drawing questions about, ‘Do you think the election was rigged? Where are you on Roe. v. Wade?’” Driscoll said.
City Attorney Jackie Kovalarich noted that the Council should be able to adopt such a framework — the existing rule for open forum was adopted by the Council — and said the legal department could craft a report on how to accommodate such limitations to be presented to Council members at their meeting next week.
Wheel-Bowman’s resignation, and the subsequent process to name her successor, comes as the city faces two processes that affect Council members — the ongoing redistricting process that could change district boundaries, including District 7, and a November charter amendment asking voters whether to move municipal elections like St. Pete’s to even-numbered years coinciding with other county, state and federal elections.
The redistricting process eliminates from eligibility individuals in several areas, including the Melrose-Mercy neighborhood. Under new maps still to be approved, Melrose-Mercy would be drawn into District 7. Those in Bear Creek and Lake Maggiore would also be drawn out of the district under the proposed maps.
The rationale is that, since maps have not been finalized and won’t take effect until after an appointment is made, those in hypothetical areas within the district do not yet qualify for the office. Likewise, those currently residing in the existing district would be disqualified from office if the proposed maps are adopted.
The charter amendment also makes the Council’s decision all the more important, as, if adopted, it would mean the new Council member could serve more than two years, until January of 2025. Under that scenario, the ultimately appointed candidate could serve up to 10 years, because they, as an appointee, would still be eligible to run for re-election in two subsequent terms.
Council Vice Chair Brandi Gabbard noted the weight of the decision Thursday, telling colleagues they “have the responsibility” to appoint someone who “could potentially sit here for a very long time.”