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Voters narrowly approve changes

Pinellas voters approve single-member districts for the County Commission. The election has the lowest turnout since '88.

By JOE NEWMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 1999


In an improbable victory aided by a last-minute blitz, Pinellas County voters on Tuesday narrowly approved a single-member district plan for the County Commission.

The measure to expand the commission from five to seven members -- with four elected from districts and three elected countywide -- won by 13 votes, or one-hundredth of a percent.

State law requires a recount for all elections decided by one-half of 1 percent or less. That recount will take place this morning at 10.

The narrow victory surprised even supporters of the change.

"Can you imagine that?" said Perkins T. Shelton, a civil-rights activist who has called for single-member districts for years.

Supporters of single-member districts "staged a last-minute blitz" to get the vote out in St. Petersburg, Shelton said.

"I think the effort that we did make -- it got some votes out," Shelton said. "I'm sure we swung more than 13 votes."

With only 8.1 percent of the county's registered voters participating, every vote counted.

It was the lowest turnout in the county since a primary runoff in 1988, when 6.6 percent of registered voters participated.

Also, election officials said they could not remember any local referendum decided by such a small margin in the past 20 years.

A second issue on the ballot, which allowed county officials to recommend charter amendments without legislative oversight, passed with 63.5 percent of the voters supporting it.

The single-member district question attracted organized opposition, but there was no campaign supporting the issue until last week, when the Coalition of African-American Leadership announced an effort to get the vote out.

The county's construction industry financed the opposing campaign, saying that single-member districts would foster pork-barrel politics and create a bigger, more expensive and inefficient government.

Opponents of single-member districts sent mailings to voters and put up signs saying the measure would lead to more taxes.

In this low-key election, however, the construction industry's message missed many voters.

In Clearwater, Charles and Kathleen Keim say they voted for both ballot items based on the recommendations in their newspaper.

"That's about our sole source of info," said Charles Keim, a retired engineer for U.S. Steel. "We didn't know much about it."

Both said they think single-member districts will improve county government.

Supporters of single-member districts say the system will make district commissioners more accountable to the voters in their district. They also say it will give black candidates a greater chance at winning a seat on the commission, or at least it will give black residents a greater voice with their commissioner. Only one black person has served on the commission in its history.

Black people make up about 6 percent of the county's registered voters, but a St. Petersburg district can be drawn with more than 20 percent black voters.

Shelton, a former NAACP official, handed out fliers at Circus McGurkis, a community fair held Saturday in St. Petersburg. He also reminded the congregation at his church that there was an election Tuesday.

"I told them they need to get out and vote and to wrest the power of government from the contractors and developers," Shelton said.

The construction industry, as well as a majority of county commissioners, had argued that commissioners elected only by voters in their districts would be more concerned about bringing perks to their districts than doing what benefits the county as a whole.

If the results hold up after today's recount, the job of drawing the districts will fall to the current County Commission, which under state law must draw districts as close in population as practical. Commissioners have indicated they will hire a consultant to draw the districts for their approval.

Commissioner Bob Stewart, who had spoken against single-member districts, says the election results will "usher in a new way of doing business for county government."

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