St. Pete Decides 2015 Council Primary Forum

BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – The League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area conducted an official St. Pete City Council Primary Election Candidate Forum last Thurs., Aug 13 at City Hall.

League member Pat Wood served as the moderator. Before getting started, she went over a few housekeeping items, such as voter registration for the Aug. 25 primary election closed July 27, and there will be no early voting for this primary.

One minute was allowed for reply to the audiences’ written questions.

The two candidates who earn the most votes in this election will go on to run in the general election Nov. 3.

Why do you want to be on the city council?

Aaron Sharpe – Wants to continue the work of the people that came before him.

“By working together we can make a difference. I have a very long history of bringing diverse teams together from all over town and helping them become successful.”

Lisa Wheeler-Brown – Wants to have a working relationship with her constituents to make sure that she advocates for what the community needs.

“People see me in the community as a neighborhood mom because they know that if they bring an issue to me, the issue will get solved.”

Elvert Lewis Stephens – Wants to address the issues of crime, broken families and needs of the district.

“I’m dedicated to give everything I got to change the hearts and souls of the people in District 7.”

Winthrop “Will” Newton – After 23 years of serving St. Pete as a firefighter, he wants to continue to serve by helping move families out of poverty.

“My reason for running for council is to have an opportunity to move those families out of the situation they’re in, and show them that there is an opportunity and that they can share in what this city has to offer.”

Sheila Scott Griffin – Feels that District 7 is in a major transition; whether it’s related to the CRA or housing, and that she is the candidate to pull it together.
“It’s going to be important that the transition is made using all the elements and pulling all elements together to work for the people.”

Regarding the infrastructure of District 7, how would you continue to make improvements to the neighborhood?

Lisa Wheeler-Brown – Excited about the CRA.

“The one thing that it will bring to the community is the ability to get rid of the blighted homes, to bring not only jobs but job readiness programs and educational things for youths.”

Elvert Lewis Stephens – Feels that city officials make a lot decisions not knowing what the people really need, and is also excited about the CRA.

“One of the first things that I would do if I were elected is find out from the citizens what is it that we need to do to bring up the community.”

Winthrop “Will” Newton – Excited about the CRA.

“That is going to be the vehicle, along with the partnership with the county and the funding mechanism that’s included, that will allow us to remove those blighted homes and vacant buildings and boarded up buildings into a position where they are on the tax roll and families are living within them.”

Sheila Scott Griffin – Excited and concerned about the CRA. Wants to make sure it is a comprehensive plan.

“It neither has goals nor objectives. It does not tell us land use or land mix. It does not tell us what percentage small business to large business, who we will recruit, how many will stay or who will we hire.”

Aaron Sharpe – CRA is a great opportunity.

“We need to ensure that as much of every dollar possible is spent in the CRA zone and then kept there. We do that by making sure that all of the stakeholders are part of the process.”

Prior to running for office, what was your greatest professional achievement, and how does it prepare you for serving on city council?

Elvert Lewis Stephens – Winning the hearts and souls of the young people.

“Being able to work with them every day; being able to see lives being changed. Being able to see students and young men that I work with enter into college [and] become better citizens here in the city of St. Petersburg.”

Winthrop “Will” Newton – As a firefighter/EMT, he was drafted to represent workers in areas of contractual concerns and became their business agent.

“I fought hard and often to maintain their wages, hours and their terms of conditions for employment…Many times we had to enter into different agreements with the City of St. Petersburg, and that prepared me for what we will be doing here on the city council.”

Sheila Scott Griffin – Have served as a planner with Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, Housing and Redevelopment with Pinellas County Community Development and U.S. Civil Rights Monitor.

“The greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life was actually to watch my foster children from diverse populations…grow and become citizens and understand and learn how to contribute.”

Aaron Sharpe – Spent 20 years in different leadership roles; 15 years in building teams and supporting others; president of his neighborhood for 10 years and sat on code enforcement for six years.

“When I have folks that worked for me or I worked for…folks from all of the different organization like partners on code enforcement, and folks like Charlie Gerdes and Bill Dudley or Mayor Foster…have support from folks like that…that’s the greatest achievement because I did the right thing.

Lisa Wheeler-Brown – Would not call it a professional achievement, but a courageous achievement when she found her son’s murderer. Received an award in Washington, D.C. from Attorney General Holder.

“It took me out of the four walls of my house into the streets of St. Pete where drug dealers were to solve my son’s murder and to hold someone accountable for what they had taken from me and my family.

If you were elected, what would your top three priorities be for District 7?

Winthrop “Will” Newton – “Inclusive into one priority.”

1. Move quickly to remove the stigma and the perception of District 7

2. Work towards removing all seven factors dealing with poverty

3. Ask that his colleagues attack the problems all at once.

Sheila Scott Griffin

1. Families

2. Education

3. Economics

Aaron Sharpe 

1. Opportunities for business

2. Opportunities for residents

3. Opportunities for neighborhoods

Lisa Wheeler-Brown

1. Public safety

2. Job creation

3. Education

Elvert Lewis Stephens

1. Build relationships with citizens of District 7

2. Youth

3. Economics

What is your position on the effort to make it easier to establish local historic districts?

Sheila Scott Griffin – Finds it a problem for the government to be involved in the day-to-day movement concerning her home.

“If for some reason I find that my home is the most incredible place and belongs in an historic archive then I should be able to make that initiative; however, circling a complete residential area as an historic district creates a lot of issues relating to those particular properties…”

Aaron Sharpe – Concerned when talking about taking away people’s rights and ability to do something.

“More importantly there are so many other areas where we need to spend our time and our focus, especially in District 7.”

Lisa Wheeler-Brown – “[I] support whatever the homeowners in that neighborhood want, and then I would advocate on their behalf. It’s just that easy for me.”

Elvert Lewis Stephens – Feels you cannot take the voice away from the citizens.

“[T]o build a strong relationship that will keep the voices of the citizens there in District 7 to be able to make decisions on what takes place in their own community.”

Winthrop “Will” Newton – Supports property rights.

“I don’t know if there is even a need for an ordinance.”

What would be your approach to juvenile crime in District 7?

Aaron Sharpe – Feels the Second Chance program is a great first step and need to expand it.

“We need to stop putting our kids in jail and ruining their futures.”

Lisa Wheeler-Brown – Need to steer our youth toward mentorship programs.

“For the past seven years I’ve been doing nothing but fighting for communities; fighting for the juveniles to keep them out of jail; to give them a better chance; to let them know that there are choices outside of the ones that they are making.”

Elvert Lewis Stephens – Feels the city needs to create opportunities for the youth.

“If a young man wants to be a barber one day, why is he not teamed up with one of the barbershops, with one of the owners?”

Winthrop “Will” Newton – Stated statistics that last year the city incarcerated 2,400 youths.

“Even if we have a jobs program and try to employ them, we rely on their records as to whether or not we let them into those programs. We got to do something different.”

Sheila Scott Griffin – Feels that children’s aptitudes are tested too late in life.

“Begin to pair them at a young age, between ninth grade and tenth grade, with different business, social services, non-profits that actually do what they’re in love with.”

How would you propose to improve the homeless problem?

Lisa Wheeler-Brown – Feels that the homeless have to want the help.

“The city should continue to embrace our homeless, create a little bit more programs [and] educate them on the programs that we have. And that will help our homeless problem because some of them just don’t know about the programs that are out there.”

Elvert Lewis Stephens – Feels that it takes years to get into the position of homelessness.

“Until we can work on those issues that they face every single day…we have to be able to offer those people better jobs, better living situations, be able to give them a place that’s there to teach them how to have a better life and give them the resources that we have here available…”

Winthrop “Will” Newton – Look at the homeless in a holistic manner, and continue to support the programs that are already in place.

“Some of our homeless are mentally ill and they may not have access to know about different resources that are out there for them.”

Sheila Scott Griffin – Gave different instances of homelessness.

“When we are looking at this problem we have to look much deeper and much greater so we’ll know that it’s not who can you see that’s homeless, many of us are.”

Aaron Sharpe – Bring jobs into the area so that people can support themselves.

“When we talk about District 7 in particular, we’re one accident away, one loss job away; it’s not that far-fetched.”

Are you concerned with gentrification now that the CRA plan is in place? What would you do to prevent it?

Elvert Lewis Stephens – Feels they need to do better with informing citizens on resources.

“Our people just don’t know the resources that’s [sic] out there that’s able to keep them from losing their home, or if they need repair on their home or some of the elderly that can’t afford to repair their homes.

Winthrop “Will” Newton – Feels gentrification is a real threat.

“When you have poverty and folks can’t move from low income situations to where they can actually own homes…you’re going to continue to have these kinds of problems.”

Sheila Scott Griffin – The city can help by creating lease to own properties.

“We want to see revitalization, but we must put in place things that allow people to stay there in an economic mix.”

Aaron Sharpe – Feels the neighborhood and the CRA need to be part of the conversation.

“Already we’ve seen with the very first project in the CRA with Commerce Park that the CRA Board was not included in on the process. The mayor is picking it by himself.”

Lisa Wheeler-Brown – Feels that they need to teach residents how to make their voices heard.

“So we educate our residence. We teach them about raising their credit scores; we teach them about budgeting so that they can become a homeowner. We walk them through that loan process.”

As a city council member, what would you do to craft an enforceable noise ordinance policy for residential areas outside of downtown?

Winthrop “Will” Newton – Hold a town hall meeting to see if that is what they are interested in.

“[F]ind out if it’s an ordinance that’s needed, or if it’s an individual situation that needs to be address.”

Sheila Scott Griffin – Feels that they should never start automatically increasing ordinances.

“I agree that it is necessary for us to document and to be able to say that we need something else, otherwise we just simply need enforcement.”

Aaron Sharpe – Feels an ordinance is not the answer to everything.

“We need to bring the parties together to work through what the issues are…By working together that we solve problems. Then holding people accountable to do the right thing…”

Lisa Wheeler-Brown – Feels communication is the key.

“Come together and let’s talk about what is it going to take to let us get along.”

Elvert Lewis Stephens – Feels we have to work together.

“I believe that we can come to some mutual agreement that we really wouldn’t have to make an ordinance for…I believe we are just lacking communication with one another.”

Name the one issue in the city budget you would address immediately?

Sheila Scott Griffin – “This issue of affordable housing and how we are utilizing some of our housing finances.”

Aaron Sharpe – “Look at the budget in the city and city staff…The first thing I would want to do is have a salary review done; a history looked at for all of those folks who got skipped year after year after year.”

Lisa Wheeler-Brown – “I would definitely look at increasing the funding for summer youth jobs.”

Elvert Lewis Stephens – “If we do not put our focus and our money into our youth here in this city, we’re going to continue to miss the mark.”

Winthrop “Will” Newton – “I would like to have the budget reviewed and look at the restrictive policies that exists.”

The primary election takes place Aug. 25.

What does a member of the city council do?

The council serves as the legislative branch, and has a chair and a vice chair. They must approve city policies, city budgets and confirm the mayor’s appointments for city administrator, city attorney and city clerk. Eight city council members are elected by voters in their district during a primary election and voted on at-large in the general election.

Members served four-year terms in office and are limited to two consecutive terms. Their annual salary is $40,485.

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