Police chiefs and the city charter

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BY GOLIATH J. DAVIS, III, PH.D.

ST. PETERSBURG — More than 20 years ago, voters in the city of St. Petersburg went to the polls and approved a major change to the city’s charter, ushering in a strong mayor form of government.  Last Thursday, city council voted to approve a voter referendum to once again request voters amend the charter.  Council wants to alter the strong mayor’s ability to be the sole voice in the employment of the city’s police chief and other unspecified positions.

Ironically, our current form of government resulted from dissatisfaction surrounding City Manager Don McRae’s firing of Police Chief Curtsinger who was strongly supported by the police union, or Police Benevolent Association (PBA), members of city council and various community organizations.

Today, the impetus for the change is in part, fueled by the same motives—dissatisfaction with the Chief Executive’s decision to hire a chief not of council or the union’s choosing, or better yet, annoyance by those displeased with the outcome because they did not get their way.

The hue and cry 20 plus years ago was that a city manager appointed by city council should not have the authority to fire the police chief.  Rather, a strong mayor, elected by the people should be vested with the responsibility of hiring and firing the police chief and other ranking administrators, along with the authority to make other personnel decisions.

The fired Police Chief Curtsinger then ran for mayor with hopes of fulfilling the role and responsibilities vested in the strong mayor by the amended city charter.

Recently, one candidate for police chief launched a major campaign for the position reminiscent of events 20 years past.  Backed by the union (PBA), members of council and various community organizations, some believed the candidate’s appointment was ensured by the support of the endorsing constituent groups absent any regard for sound qualifications, and the applicant’s blatant violation of stated procedures.

Mayor Rick Kriseman, acting within the parameters of the duties and responsibilities granted the strong mayor, demonstrated a great deal of courage and creativity by selecting a police chief who met if not exceeded the stated qualifications; and in doing so, ensured the police department and the city would have the best chance to overcome the strife and discord of the last four years.  Yet, those who did not get the candidate of their choice seek to once again, change the rules.

Councilmember Steve Kornell, dissatisfied he and other councilmembers are not allowed to tell the mayor who to hire recently asserted:  “you can’t be the voice of the people if you can’t talk.”

This statement doesn’t acknowledge an obvious fact.  The people were engaged and heard on several levels. First, the voters elected the mayor and members of city council; second, councilmembers were given opportunities for input and their positions were considered; and more importantly, the mayor went out of his way to gather citizen input.

In fact, the opportunities for direct citizen input exceeded reasonable expectations.  Consequently, some would say there was no need for the representation Councilmember Kornell suggests.  Therefore, one can only conclude some councilmembers wanted a different outcome and are unhappy they were not given an opportunity to vote on the position through dialogue or ballot.

We, the people, elected a strong mayor to lead the city for the next four years.  The police department, to include the appointment of a new police chief and other troubling issues, was central to the campaign.  We were afforded opportunities to speak with the mayor and members of his administration regarding all of the issues.  He did what we elected him to do and as with every democratic decision, not all are pleased.

I urge the voters to resist all attempts to change the charter because some are dissatisfied with one outcome.

Please Do Not Vote To Amend The Charter.

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