Happy election week.
On Tuesday, voters in St. Petersburg and Clearwater go to the polls for what are important decisions that will shape the future of both cities. In St. Pete, the mayor's job and four City Council seats are up for grabs; and in Clearwater, voters are being asked whether the city should lease the City Hall property to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium so it can build a massive new home — and tourist attraction — downtown.
Sadly, these elections only will draw a small segment of eligible voters. Off-year elections always do. Apparently, Americans only get up for the heavyweight contests, such as last year's presidential election and next year's race for governor. In some ways, that always has surprised me. Politics is never more personal than at the local level, where you're likely to run into your elected officials at an event or even the grocery store. That's an important dynamic because it provides a heightened level of accountability. Voters' enmity over unpopular votes in Tallahassee or Washington sometimes dissipates to the point of being ineffectual by Election Day; but that's less true at the local level. We typically can more directly discern the effect of what our mayors, council members and commissioners do. Plus, elections aren't our only chance to hold those folks accountable. This is where they live; so a tough vote reverberates at work, at church, at their kids' schools.
The accountability starts with Election Day, though — and that includes our accountability. That's when the key votes rest with us. One of the most important components to a business' success is smart hiring; the same is true of communities and voting. Election Day is where we need to make sound personnel decisions, entrusting the future of our communities — where we live and raise our children — to wise leaders with determination and vision. Or, at least, people who won't mess up things.
The stakes are high. In St. Petersburg, the next mayor and City Council will need to set a direction for the future of the city's waterfront and decide what to do with The Pier; deal with blight and crime in economically depressed areas; extend downtown's vitality into neighborhoods, and create stronger partnerships between City Hall and community leaders. Those we elect will need to build on the fiscal pragmatism of the past four years and attract employers with higher-paying jobs, nurture the arts and end the impasse with the Rays over the stadium issue.
In Clearwater, voters are being asked to help determine the future of their moribund downtown. Is the vitality city leaders hope to create more likely to come by making downtown a better place to live and work, or is the city better off trying to extend its appeal to tourists by capitalizing on the incredible popularity of Winter the dolphin? In this case, the final decision about whether to lease the City Hall property to the aquarium will rest with city officials; but Tuesday's referendum, which would give the city the blessing it needs to move forward, is voters' chance to weigh in on the matter.
These are important decisions. Many people stay away from the polls because they feel unqualified to make informed choices — or that picking Candidate A over Candidate B doesn't really matter. I've sat out some elections for that reason; but if you're not up to speed, there's still time. You can read Josh Boatwright's coverage of the aquarium issue and Christopher O'Donnell's stories about the St. Petersburg races, along with candidate profiles, at TBO.com. The League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area also has put together a helpful voters guide. Check it out at www.lwvspa.org/voter-guide-2013.
Meet the editor
Before or after you vote Tuesday, stop by the Banyan Café, at 689 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N., and say hello. I'll be there from 9 to 10 a.m.