ST. PETERSBURG — Against the wishes of the mayor’s office, the city council is taking its case to have a say on high-level appointments such as a new police chief to the people.
Council members Thursday unanimously approved holding a referendum to change the city charter to allow them to publicly comment on some hiring decisions. The proposed change would leave the mayor with the final say over high-level hires but would allow council members to talk publicly about candidates and declare whom they favor.
The issue arose after council members were warned by city attorneys in June not to comment on the ongoing search for a new police chief, a restriction council members likened to an infringement of their First Amendment rights.
Under the city charter, council members can be removed from office if they “directly or indirectly” take part in the hiring process or direct or request the hiring of any candidate.
“You can’t be the voice of the people if you can’t talk,” Council Vice Chairman Steve Kornell said.
The referendum will be added to the Nov. 4 ballot and will cost the city $20,500.
Mayor Rick Kriseman’s office urged council members to avoid the cost and effort of a citywide vote, saying the charter did not prohibit them from expressing their opinion and that the mayor had involved them in the process.
During the hiring process, council members were asked to review resumes and comment to Kriseman or his staff on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. There also was a meet-and-greet with the four finalists for the job, all of whom were eventually rejected by Kriseman in favor of Clearwater Police Chief Tony Holloway, who did not apply for the job.
“It seems to me if your neighbors ask you and you express an opinion, I don’t know that it’s influencing the hiring of someone,” City Administrator Gary Cornwall said.
But city legal staff initially warned the council against making any comment on the search for a police chief, prompting some council members to consult their own attorneys.
City Attorney John Wolfe on Thursday revised his opinion and said comments on hiring of a chief to a family member or a resident likely would not violate the charter, but that talking to the media would take council members into more of a legal gray area.
The city’s charter ban on council influence in regard to hiring dates to when the city was overseen by a city manager. The rule was retained when the city switched to a strong mayor government in 1993.
If approved by voters, the charter change would give council members authority to comment on the hiring of a police and fire chief, city administrator and department heads.
Council members already confirm the appointment of the city administrator, city clerk, city attorney and all assistant city attorneys.
Councilman Karl Nurse said it’s typical for the mayor to seek out the opinion of council members when making important hiring decisions. The proposed charter change would merely reflect that reality, he said.
“This is not a slippery slope,” said Councilman Karl Nurse, who suggested the change.
“I’m just suggesting that the First Amendment still exists for council members.”