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A Times Editorial

Public suffers as city plays tit-for-tat

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000

In a dispute worthy of any sandbox, the St. Petersburg's mayor and City Council are playing tit-for-tat with the public's airwaves. Attempting to muzzle Mayor David Fischer, council members decided early this year that, because he might run for re-election (against some council members, no less!), Fischer could not take calls from viewers or even appear on a city-sponsored TV show called City On Call. Six months later, facing a tax-rate cut he had opposed, Fischer had his staff cut the budget in such a way as to pull the plug on City on Call and another program that showcased council members' pet projects.

Both shows were useful vehicles for answering the public's questions and concerns. Including dialogue with the mayor and council members would only have made them more informative.

When they voted for the mayoral ban, council members claimed they wanted to curb politicking or at least guarantee equal time for all city office-seekers. So they said only paid staff could appear on City on Call. But the council's hypocrisy started showing when it asked city marketers to develop a vehicle where each of them could focus on an issue of his or her choice.

The resulting program, District by District, thus provided free 15-minute infomercials for three of the five council members who initially voted to ban Fischer and who are seeking higher offices. Larry Williams, who is running for mayor, objected to Fischer's appearance last December, and mayoral contender Kathleen Ford followed suit a month later. Bob Kersteen, who resigned from the council to unsuccessfully seek a state House seat, also supported the ban.

This dispute would be a good candidate for the tempest-in-a-teapot file if voters weren't the losers. A program geared toward teens and a water conservation program also got the ax. Most shows gave viewers who lacked the time to attend council meetings the chance to ask nuts-and-bolts questions about issues like permitting, hurricane preparedness and code enforcement -- workaday concerns that are hardly election-breakers. Although District by District appears to be gone for good, city officials said City on Call would air on an as-needed basis.

The citizens of St. Petersburg deserve more access to their leaders, and it's not fair to let politics get in the way. Stop the bickering, play nice and bring back the two shows or another program where people can dial in and query their elected officials.

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