Of all the candidates running for the mayor of St. Petersburg in 2009, Jamie Bennett may have the highest name recognition. That's not unusual considering he has spent the past seven years as a city councilman, with 2008 seeing him as chairman of that board.
That can be a mixed blessing, as it also means Bennett has a record that other candidates can shoot at. Plus, he has to figure out whether to distance himself from the current mayor, Rick Baker, or ride some of the city's successes in the Baker administration: the booming downtown and decreasing tax rates, to name two.
But Bennett seems totally at home with his position in the crowded field. He has a strong command of the stats and issues at City Hall, being immersed in them, but doesn't come off as an insider or a policy wonk.
Bennett, who owns a lawn service company and teaches as an adjunct professor at Eckerd College, has made "One St. Petersburg" his motto. (His campaign website is onestpetersburg.com.) He says the phrase describes his desire to make all parts of the city equal in terms of love and attention from City Hall. The affable former Peace Corps volunteer has a reputation as a nice guy, and he's taken on some very tough (and unpopular to some) issues, including how we deal with and accommodate the growing homeless population in St. Pete and Pinellas County.
I asked Bennett the same first question I have asked all of the candidates I have interviewed so far:
CL: What's wrong with the police department?
Bennett: Every police department the globe has issues. So what is wrong? We can spend plenty of time on what is right. What we have are challenges. There is no greater detriment to going forward as a city if people do not feel safe, so your police dept has to be led by people that get it. The city council stepped forward in two particular veins, when we did the police study we immediately began having two good years of adding policeman so that we can reach our authorized strength of 540, which is an awesome consideration in this budgetary crisis year. The other is that we need a police chief that communicates. When Chuck Harmon came to city council, we said please tell the community that -- and the police -- that they're doing a good job.
Can Chief Chuck Harmon be that communicator, or would you be looking to make a change at police chief?
There will be no changes going into the transition period. That's just crazy to think that you're going in to eliminate this position or that. Chuck is trying very hard. He's everywhere; you can't shut the guy up now. He's doing what we asked him to do. Chuck Harmon is the police chief until such time as we find somebody else, but that certainly is not a priority going into it.
One of your opponents, Scott Wagman, has said he would reinstate high-speed chases. Do you disagree with his stance?
It think it's a bit reckless for Mr. Wagman to make that statement. He's also said he would turn our police force over the county sheriff. He's going to find a lot of resistance on that. [Eds. Wagman denies ever saying he would contract out police work to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. He says he would actually work to improve relations beween the two law-enforcement agencies.] The chief has made this policy of restraint on police chases, and I think it's a solid policy.
What would your commitment be to the Tampa Bay Rays' new stadium hopes?
We are going to work extremely hard to keep baseball in St. Petersburg. Period. We have a history of baseball. We need to have baseball here. I believe the best site is across Booker Creek by MLK, have the discussion on building it where the financing is, you already know how to park people, let's replicate some of the other stadiums with retractable roofs if that is what you have to have. Personally, I like the air conditioning.
There was criticism about secrecy involving the Rays early talks with St. Petersburg staff, and about the $12.7 million tax incentive deal to keep Jabil Circuit. Is City Hall lacking transparency?
To go to the stadium issue, I wasn't informed of it until after the election. There are state statutes that we do have to live in or you go to jail. They are real, they're not perceived. You do have to operate in that kind of climate. Can the city do a better job of being more open? I believe we have taken steps like Jabil Circuit that we can talk about. Having served as chair of council getting through that entire stadium process, I am really proud of how council handled that entire eight months. It was extremely hard. It goes back to the idea that a councilperson represents 35,000 people, voices and opinions, so that person has to remain neutral. You have to be able to listen to the POWW group side on one side and the let's build the ballpark people on the other side. The wheels came off the [Rays'] wagon because we had an open forums and process where (we found) the parking was not going to work, the financing, every penny of it we paid for, and the downtown site was just not acceptable to people.
More on the web
You can download the entire interview in a podcast at cltampa.com/politicalwhore. (Just type in the search phrase "Jamie Bennett.") In the coming weeks, I'll feature similar one-on-ones with the other candidates as we get closer to the Sept. 1 primary election in St. Petersburg.
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