St. Pete Council advances ballsy measure to take on big money in politics

A preliminary vote passed the council 5-3.

click to enlarge An anonymous demonstrator holds a sign ahead of the council's decision. Proponents of the measure to limit shady money in local elections gathered on the steps of St. Pete City Hall Thursday morning to voice their support for the proposal. - Kate Bradshaw
Kate Bradshaw
An anonymous demonstrator holds a sign ahead of the council's decision. Proponents of the measure to limit shady money in local elections gathered on the steps of St. Pete City Hall Thursday morning to voice their support for the proposal.

In an effort to take a stand against the Citizens United decision and all the political douchery it has wrought, a majority of St. Pete City Council members voted to take up an ordinance aimed at limiting the influence of oft-shady money in city elections — though supporters have another endgame in sight.

The 5-3 vote gets the ball rolling on an ordinance Council Chair Darden Rice first proposed a year ago. If it passes in its current form, it would curb contributions to political action committees at $5,000. It would also ban companies with more than five percent foreign ownership from donating. The policy would only apply to city-level elections.

You hold the local integrity of our democracy in your hands," said Julie Kessel, a board member for the League of Women Voters of Florida, ahead of the vote. "You have the people on your side. We want you to do this.”

The five "yes" votes came from Council members Amy Foster, Charlie Gerdes, Karl Nurse, Rice and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman. Foster was the swing vote. The "no" votes came from Councilmen Jim Kennedy, Steve Kornell and Ed Montanari.

On its face, the ordinance would limit wealthy and powerful interests' ability to drown out the voices of voters of lesser means, as has happened with increasing frequency and ferocity since the Citizens United decision came down in 2010.

But backers say if it passes, the city could get challenged on its constitutionality, given that it's a direct contradiction to Citizens United. A donor or group could (and likely would) sue the city. And supporters hope they do, so the case snakes through the court system and becomes an existential threat to the nastier aspects of Citizens United.

City Attorney Joe Patner emphatically advised against that strategy Thursday morning, calling it "unconstitutional" and pointing to similar efforts that have been carried out in other places to no avail. He said the city will open itself up to expensive lawsuits only to lose.

Passing this is all risk, in our opinion, with no benefit,” Patner said.

But constitutional lawyer and Free Speech for People cofounder John Bonifaz said if the city were to get sued, his organization would defend it pro bono.

Earlier on Thursday, Mayor Rick Kriseman, who is up for reelection this year, said while he supports the measure, potential legal costs are a concern of his as well, which is why he'd like to see a fund set up to help St. Pete avoid potentially hefty legal fees. (Rice said the ordinance, if passed, would not impact the current mayors' race, in which the two leading candidates each enjoy support from PAC money.)

Montanari, one of the members who voted against the proposal, objected to the possibly unconstitutional nature of the proposal, noting that he and his colleagues each swore to uphold the constitution when they took the oath of office.

But proponents countered that "constitutional" doesn't necessarily mean right.

Just because something is constitutional doesn't mean that it isn't reprehensible,” Gerdes said. “The history of our beautiful, wonderful, I-wouldn't-live-anywhere-else country is unfortunately laden with legal mistakes that it took a long time to resolve, correct and ultimately apologies are made.”

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