BY ALLEN A. BUCHANAN, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — The NAACP St. Petersburg Branch hosted the last city council candidate debate at the Enoch Davis Center last Mon., Oct. 26 in front of a packed auditorium.
Present for the sometimes ferocious conversation and last-chance platform promotion effort were six year City Councilmember Steven Kornell and challenger Philip Garrett for the District 5 race and Lisa Wheeler-Brown and Winthrop “Will” Newton for the District 7 race.
With one week left before the election, each candidate was determined to solidify their position and what they would do if elected to city council. Moderating the forum was Adam C. Smith, nationally acclaimed Tampa Bay Times political editor.
“If you’re doing the job right I believe you’re listening to your community,” said Kornell. He added that “public safety is one of the top issues.” He punctuated this point by citing his involvement with the once crime-riddled and rundown Mariner’s Point Apartment complex to get it under new management.
“I spent three straight years working on that and dogging an out-of-town landlord and out-of-town management company into doing the right thing,” he said. For Kornell the right thing was to start an apartment community program with the St. Petersburg Police Department “to make sure there are some basic safety things being done.”
Kornell emphasized his hands on dedication to education as a school social worker that works with youth every day.
“I don’t work with kids who are doing well, I work with kids who are doing their very worst,” said Kornell. “I work with kids who have been abused, who live in cars and so I get what that means.”
In responding to this situation, Kornell turned to the Juvenile Welfare Board (JWB) and created the 21st Century Learning Program, a program that was very influential on youth at John Hopkins Middle School at the turn of the last century.
“I’ve been working for and advocating for early childhood education for the past 10 years,” said Kornell. He feels that education and economic development are vital to the productive health and growth of south St. Petersburg.
Garrett threw in that he’s a God-fearing family man and the father of three. “My footprints run through this community everywhere and I’m here to advocate for you.”
He implored the audience members to look at the last six years and ask themselves: “What has the city council done for you…and if you feel that these things haven’t been done, it’s time for new leadership!”
With that statement, Garrett drew the definitive divide between his platform and that of his opponent. He would later slam a comment made by Newton about Wheeler-Brown that imposed political limitations when he stated that maybe she should run for the school board because her major concerns were relative to education, a comment that received negative feedback from the audience.
Indeed, Garrett stood out as the firebrand among the four candidates. He warned residents about the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) projects coming into town with little results. He told them to get a copy and read it thoroughly.
Garrett, like the other candidates, feels that early childhood education is paramount to turning around the schools labeled as failure factories in St. Petersburg.
“We need to focus on our 1 to five years olds because they’re struggling just like our middle schoolers are struggling,” said Garrett. His concerns about getting handle on struggling students during their first four years of school is a strategy consistently echoed in educational research journals worldwide.
Newton introduced himself as the District Vice President of the Florida Professional Firefighters organization whose duties take him to Tallahassee where he works “hard for working class families to ensure your benefits and salaries and making sure we get some pretty good laws passed.”
He boasted of working with JWB to bring programs into the Childs Park area, such as Change for Youth Development.
Last to introduce herself was Wheeler-Brown who is running against Newton for a City Council seat in District 7.
“My record of service began when I joined the Military,” said Wheeler-Brown. “The first thing they teach you is to lead from the front and you don’t follow any crowd. After being past president of St. Petersburg’s Council of Neighborhood Associations, one of my roles was to bring neighborhoods together to solve issues that affected us all.”
Wheeler-Brown would point out how she faced problems head-on when relating to the murder of son and the struggle to finally apprehend the suspect who is now serving three consecutive life sentences.
She calmly lashed out at her opponent and some of his supporters for saying she is profiting from her son’s murder. She summed up what she feels is foul play as dirty politics.
“The people of the community deserve someone better, they deserve someone who is going to advocate for the concerns of the community,” she said.
One hot issue of the night was the CRA and the strengths and challenges it has.
Wheeler-Brown – “What I’m excited about is this time there will be accountability. Accountability and transparency so that the residents will know exactly where the money is going…that they are getting what they need in the community. We didn’t have that before.”
Newton – “This one is funded because we’ve had many (CRA projects) that didn’t have a dedicated funding source.”
He went on to say that he would like to see the land where Tropicana Field sits be brought back into the Southside TIF (Tax Increment Financing) so that the area will have a funding source that will move quicker towards project investment and funding.
The challenge he feels is stopping the cycle of poverty that exists in District 6 and 7.
Garrett said that a large portion of the CRA money should be used for infrastructure to attract businesses and he wants quarterly reports to track the money. He reminded everyone that CRAs have come to Midtown before and the area is still blighted.
“So we must make sure that the money is followed…We have to make sure they are held accountable…and I will be there to hold them accountable like many have not been,” said Garrett.
Kornell started by resetting the tone for himself and audience by stating he has a “positive message and I’m going to stick to it.”
“What’s different about this one is that we’ve never had a TIF before, a funding source to go along with the CRA. The other thing that is phenomenal is that the city went to the County Commission and said that we can use this source legally for infrastructure but there’s a need to use it for people and it can be used that way by the state, but we need you to make it happen (on a local level).”
The City and county have established South St. Petersburg as a community redevelopment area. Tell us the strengths you see in the CRA plan and the challenges you see in the plan and why?
Five of the elementary schools identified in Pinellas County as “Failing Factories” by a Tampa Bay Times investigative story are located in District 6 & 7. What do you see as the city’s role in addressing the academic injustices that have occurred to black children?
Collectively preschools are one of the largest employers in south St. Petersburg. What would you do, if anything, to support the capacity of independently, not corporately owned early childcare centers to remain in business and reach their goals of becoming “quality” early childcare centers? Quality being defined as preschools that are accredited, have bachelor level teachers, evidence based curriculum, technology focused and maintain an environment and facilities that are conducive for learning.
Many black families were uprooted to build what is now Tropicana Field. In the event the Rays are able to pursue a home elsewhere in Pinellas or Hillsborough County, what would you advocate for the funds derived from the Rays be used for?
Within the last month the NAACP has received two complaints alleging housing discrimination. If you were elected or reelected to city council and the NAACP housing committee met with you for assistance in assessing or determining the existence and extent of housing discrimination in south St. Pete, what suggestions would you offer to aid in an in-depth investigation?
If you were elected or re-elected, what strengths do you bring to the table that would help to improve how the council functions?