Verbal daggers thrown at St. Pete City Council candidate forum

07/09/13 Janelle Irwin
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One of the most fiercely contested St. Petersburg City Council races is shaping up to be the contest to represent parts of northeast St. Pete. All four District 4 candidates sparred during their first debate Monday night. But two of candidates took the gloves off. Tea Party activist and neurosurgeon David McKalip and longtime community activist Darden Rice threw verbal punches at each other over proposed policies.

City council seats are non-partisan. So it doesn’t matter that McKalip is firmly rooted in the right and Rice somewhere left of center. But that didn’t stop partisan talking points from popping up between the two.

“There’s $80 million in excess reserve money sitting in the bank that came out of your pocket to the bank accounts of the city and my opponent, Darden Rice, would like to spend it on grand government schemes. I want to give you a tax break with it. You earned it in the first place, I want to put it right back in your pocket.”

Later in the debate, Rice corrected McKalip, saying she had never voiced her support for spending the city’s reserves. McKalip, shot back.

“Darden Rice helped found and organized the People’s Budget Review is on the record to take $80 million of reserves and spend it on feel good projects that are going to waste your taxpayer money – Darden organized that.”

Rice did organize the People’s Budget Review, a fact which she is quite proud of. And the website for the survey effort does tackle the $80 million reserve issue. According to the People’s Budget Review website, that money is an excess in the city’s Enterprise Funds which is a mostly self-sustaining pool for things like trash pickup and wastewater treatment. But, nowhere in that rundown does it say the group of organizers, including Rice, support digging into the money. But McKalip was very clear that he would support using the funds to reform pension programs for city workers along with a host of what he calls tax cuts.

“We’re going to cut property taxes $10 million and water $10 million and we’re going to cut garbage bills down $19 million over five years, we’re going to cut our water bill, we’re going to cut the tax that the city imposes on utility bills, we’re going to cut the tax that the city imposes on phone bills. In other words, we’re going to cut our government down to size. We’re going to make them live on the same budget that we’ve been living under for the last decade. While we’ve been suffering in a bad economy, they’ve spent more money than they’ve ever spent in their entire history.”

Rice blasted McKalip for his willingness to pander to corporations, siting his support for handing the St. Pete Pier over to a private company. As a city council member, Rice said her budget choices would be derived mostly from public safety.

“I will also look for cost efficiencies and look for ways to streamline government so that we can have a lean and mean government that runs as smart as possible, but not at the expense of public safety.”

Both McKalip and Rice have dominated the district four showdown to replace Leslie Curran who is being term limited out. But they aren’t the only dogs in the fight. Carolyn Fries, the Crescent Lake neighborhood association president and Richard Eldridge, a retired Marine are also running. Despite some key differences, all four candidates agreed on the St. Pete Pier – the Lens is out – and red light cameras – get out of here big brother. But on a fairly new issue plaguing City Hall, the group was split. McKalip and Fries both are opposed to universal curbside recycling.

“I’m in favor of keeping the current system that we have which an optional curbside recycling program. So, residents who choose to do so can pay a few extra dollars a month to have curbside recycling. You also have the option of having a private service or not recycling at all or taking it to one of your local recycling centers which is what my family does.”

“So what we’re the only city without it, maybe we’re smarter than the other cities. Do you want ot have another garbage can to manage at your house? Because that’s what will happen. It’ll be dropped off at your home, a big blue or green bin … I recycle. I pay a private company to do it and I’m happy to do it, but I’m not going to force you to have a higher garbage bill to meet some sort of grand vision to just force you to do what they want.”

Eldridge’s response to an audience question about curbside recycling was a simple, “yes, it doesn’t cost that much,” while Rice snapped at the implication that the program would be mandated – a misconception she says is absolutely false.

“The city is looking at ten year old data when they say they can’t do it and I support looking at current data to look at and evaluate the most cost efficient, feasible way to provide the service to its citizens. The thing is, and none of my opponents can refute this fact, St. Pete is the only major city in the state of Florida to not have universal curbside recycling. We’re also an anomaly in our own county, yet in our own county we have some of the highest trash pickup fees. So, we need to look at a way – a cost efficient, feasible way to implement it or we need to look at a way to bring those fees down because it begs the question: what are we paying for if we’re not getting the service that almost every other city in the state and county receive?"

Another issue popping up more and more frequently among St. Pete elected officials is whether or not they would support decriminalizing marijuana in the city. City Council and the mayor could impose policy on the police department that made marijuana use and possession a civil offense rather than criminal. During a mayoral debate, candidates Rick Kriseman and Kathleen Ford said they’d consider it and current mayor Bill Foster said absolutely not. The district four candidates were split with McKalip and Fries opposing loosening the grip on pot smokers, while Rice and Eldridge both said too many low-income young males are racking up detrimental criminal records because of marijuana. Eldridge took that one step further by voicing his support for complete legalization.

“I’ve studied this, there are peer reviewed studies on the National Institute of Health website showing the benefits of cannabis, how it – the cannabis and the – for one thing, it fights cancer … I don’t have time to go into all the details, but if you go to the NIH website – Pub Med – and just Google 'cannabis.'”

Another divisive issue among candidates was homelessness. Rice and Eldridge favored improving education programs to help those living on the streets and avoid continuing the problem into future generations, while McKalip and Fries said the city should focus more on families and less on those who aren’t interested in helping themselves.

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Another Fact Check: Darden Rice did not organize the People's Budget Review. She was one of many people and organizations that have worked on the initiative known as the People's Budget Review. To say she organized it is incorrect as it implies it was only her or dependent upon her efforts. David McKalip also claimed that The People's Budget Review was a shadow organization with the purpose of getting Darden Rice elected. This is completely wrong and for him to claim this without evidence to support his assertion shows him to be willfully lying or suffering from delusional paranoia. Either way, he is not fit to represent others in a position of any kind of influence.