Thursday, November 1, 2007

Experience Matters

Last week, the Friday Morning Group had Herb Polson on the hot seat. Herb is running for re election to the St. Petersburg City Council in District 1.

We actually started off with a discussion of the meaning of the term re election. That's because Herb was originally appointed to the Council last year to fill the vacancy created by Rick Kriseman's resignation upon his successful run for the State Legislature. Herb is now running for the seat in his own right. He also did his homework. Understanding the power of incumbency, Herb asked for and received a ruling from the state Division of Elections telling him that, as the incumbent, he was entitled to use the term "re elect" in his campaign material.

Well, Herb's opponent did not like that fact and complained to the St. Petersburg Times. The Times, which has had precious little coverage on any of these City Council races, decided that this complaint was newsworthy. However, as Herb was able to show us, the complaint was absolutely unfounded. So maybe the lesson is if you want to get into the newspaper, lodge a completely unfounded complaint.

OK, enough about that. Herb Polson has spent nearly his entire adult life in the service of the City of St. Petersburg and our country. Herb stared his career with the City as a civilian in the police force, and wound up for many years being the city's liaison to other governments - the city's lobbyist, if you will. Herb also is (was?) an officer in the Navy Reserve for many, many years.

When Rick Kriseman ran for the legislature, Herb retired from the City so that he could seek appointment to the vacated council seat. Herb was appointed last year and has been putting his knowledge of city operations to work as a council member since that time.

And what a year it has been! Of course the big issue for the City this year has been in dealing with the effects of the property tax "reform" effort in Tallahassee. This has caused the City to cut back their spending and initially led the Mayor to propose zero funding this year for arts and social services organizations.

In one of his roles as a City employee, Herb was actually responsible for arts and social services funding. He was also responsible for putting together the City's Cultural Plan that was the initiative of then and now Council Member (and Friday Morning Group member) Leslie Curran.

We had a discussion about the amount of tax relief we each actually received from the first round of property tax "reforms" in Tallahassee. Herb posed the question to us if for the amount of property tax relief we each received, did we think it was worth it in terms of the cuts the City was forced to make. Universally, we did not think it was worth it. However, Herb warned us that the next round of cuts that may come would even be much more painful for the City.

However, Herb also told us that there is a tremendous amount of money inside and outside the City available to fund some of the things we have indicated we wanted, if we just were creative in how we went about looking for it. To his credit, Herb has already found "outside the box" solutions to keep the libraries open on Saturday and with the help of the Devil Rays, to keep an exchange student program with our Japanese sister city alive. That's what experience can do for you.

We also talked about how the arts have had a tremendous impact on the City of St. Petersburg. That, in fact, the arts are a much more valuable economic engine than any of the professional sports franchises in the area. We also talked about how this all seemed to come about when St. Petersburg quit trying to be Tampa and just decided to concentrate on being St. Pete.

Herb also told us how he was a firm believer in asking people what they want and then delivering it to them. This would be as opposed to telling people what they should want and delivering that to them instead. Herb told us that the City used to regularly poll its residents to see just what it was the residents did want. In the early 90's, Herb was responsible for a questionnaire that went out to all 93,000 households in the City asking the residents what their needs and desires for the City were. Out of this came the city's extremely successful neighborhoods program and many other programs that make the City the success story that it is today. Herb believes that it is well past time to go back to the residents again asking them what they want the City to be.

Seems to me like experience does matter.

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