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St. Pete Council Limits Outside Money in City Elections

Ballot Box | Elections | Politics


The new rule would limit donations from so-called super PACs and ban contributions from corporations with significant foreign ownership.

ST. PETERSBURG – After debate and soul searching, a majority of St. Petersburg council members voted to ignore the advice of  their attorney and limit the amount of outside money that can flow into city elections.

The new rule not only limits the amount of money municipal candidates can receive through “super PACs,” it also bans political contributions from corporations that have substantial foreign ownership.

“What’s the right thing to do?” Council Member Charlie Gerdes asked during the discussion. “I believe this is the right thing to do.”

The ordinance passed 6-2 with Jim Kennedy and Ed Montanari as the dissenting votes.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman praised the decision.

“Six members of the St. Petersburg City Council took a bold stand today against shadowy political committees and foreign money. They should be applauded. Reasonable people can debate the merits of the ordinance and its impact, but there should be no disagreement about the righteousness of council’s actions or the Defend our Democracy campaign. Less money in our politics is a good thing,” Kriseman said.

He added, “President John F. Kennedy once said: ‘There are risks and costs to…action, but they are far less than the long range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.’ It is in that spirit that I am supportive of council’s actions and of the many citizens who have advocated for the passage of this ordinance.”

In passing the ordinance, council members were reacting to the amount of big money that’s flowing into local races across the country. Some of that money flows from corporations and Super PACs, that raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, individuals and others. Because they are not subject to traditional rules limiting contributions to campaigns, they can use that money to finance candidates and causes that benefit their interests.

Darden Rice | St. Petersburg City Council | Politics
Darden Rice

“It is not so far-fetched” that big money could be used to back candidates that will care only about what the PAC wants rather than what residents want, Council Member Darden Rice said. It has happened in other cities, she said.

.”I wish I could be wrong that some day super PACS won’t be influential in our local government,” Rice said. “I’m voting ‘yes’ because I hear a lot of people…who are ringing the bell [on our democracy].”

The six who voted in favor of the ordinance went against city attorney Joe Patner who advised the council to reject the proposal.

“This ordinance is illegal,” Patner said. “It violates the First Amendment of the Constitution under the current state of the law.”

That opens the city up to a possible lawsuit. If the city loses the case, the resultant costs and attorney’s fees could cost St. Petersburg millions of dollars.

Charlie Gerdes | St. Petersburg City Council | Politics
Charlie Gerdes
Jim Kennedy | St. Petersburg City Council | TB Reporter
Jim Kennedy

That possibility was one reason Kennedy voted against the ordinance. Kennedy said he was also concerned about enforcing it. The $500 penalty for violating the rule is no deterrent, he said.

“I have struggled with this mightily,” said Kennedy, who is a lawyer. “In my heart I want to vote ‘yes.’ But in my head, I know the law. The law isn’t what I always want it to be. … Bottom line, I don’t think it’s enforceable and, bottom line, I think it exposes” the city to too much risk.

Gerdes said he thought enforcement will come from voters who would not elect a candidate who repeatedly violated the ordinance. As for Kennedy’s other argument, Gerdes said it was like saying that there’s a problem but “it’s too expensive to fix” because of the possible costs of a lawsuit. But, Gerdes said, not fixing it could help destroy democracy.

. “To me, it’s too expensive not to fix,” Gerdes said.

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St. Pete Council Limits Outside Money in City Elections
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St. Pete Council Limits Outside Money in City Elections
The new rule would limit donations from so-called super PACs and ban contributions from corporations with significant foreign ownership.
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TB Reporter
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