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Politics

City voters to be nudged out of apathetic coma

Council candidates will get broader exposure, on TV and the Internet. The primary is Sept. 11, in case it slipped your mind.

By CRISTINA SILVA, Times Staff Writer
Published September 2, 2007


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In an effort to raise voter awareness during a low-key election season, city officials agreed last week to host a televised City Council candidate debate before the November general election.

The forum will be broadcast on the city's public television station and will mark the first time the city has televised an election debate in recent memory, city officials said.

"What's wrong with using the station to inform people?" council member Jamie Bennett, who is running for re-election, said during a policy and planning committee meeting Thursday. "That's what it is there for."

Council members also decided that the city will begin putting photos and biographies of the candidates on the St. Petersburg Web site over the next few months.

The election education effort is in part a reaction to an uneventful campaign season.

In August, fewer than 50 residents took advantage of early voting. Only about 30 percent of absentee voters returned their ballots.

As a result, council members have predicted that voter turnout will be low, particularly for the Sept. 11 primary, unless residents are better informed.

"It's going to be decided by less than 10 percent of voters based on the track record, and that's a big concern to me," said council chairman John Bryan.

Council member Leslie Curran said the televised debate could help clue in some clueless residents.

"Nobody you talk to, they don't even know an election is going on," she said.

In a televised debate, each candidate will have to be given equal air time because of the city's broadcasting license with the FCC.

Although council members quickly gave the idea of a televised debate the thumbs-up, they couldn't agree on a format and opted to revisit that matter in September.

During Thursday's brief meeting, council members went back and forth on who the debate moderator should be, how long it should last, who would choose the questions and where the debate would be held.

If the city selected the questions and then submitted them to the city attorney's office for approval, they would become public record and would be available to the candidates before the debate, said City Attorney John Wolfe.

But allowing one organization to pick all the questions before the debate would defeatthe purpose,Curran said.

Instead, residents should be given a chance to send in their questions to the moderator before the debate, she said.

"If the question is boxers or briefs, so be it, that's the question," she said.

Cathy Harrelson, a candidate for the District 3 seat who attended Thursday's meeting, said the televised debate would help even the playing field since incumbents already get air time on the station during public meetings.

"It's important to educate people," she said afterward. "This is really necessary."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

[Last modified September 1, 2007, 23:47:17]


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