by Benjamin J. Kirby
Here is the scene: I get home from work, usually around 5:45 or 6:00, and my daughter greets me with an enthusiastic Daddy! before resuming her usual late afternoon activity.
Duncan steps out from the kitchen to say "hi," then steps back in to finish dinner. I try in vain to calm the dog, who is usually going nuts on his bed. He knows what's coming.
Two year-olds and wives can have patience, and my two year-old and my wife have infinite patience. "Infinite" compared to Conan, the one hundred and ten pound Great Dane, cooped up in the house most of the day. He must walk.
And walk we do. I love seeing Emeline and Duncan, and I frequently bad-mouth my dog as a pain and a burden, but our mile or so walks are often pleasant, and are usually the most exercise I get in a day.
They also remind of why I live where I do, which is Gulfport, Florida. The houses look a lot like mine. There's the people walking dogs, like me. Sometimes they're pushing a stroller (like me, when Emmy comes along). Sometimes they're pushing a walker. A lot of folks wave, most prefer saying 'hi' to Conan over me, which is understandable.
Specifically, I'm frequently remined of why I live in Gulfport, Ward Three, where I am represented on the City Council by Dr. Jennifer Salmon.
Before your brain immediately makes the usual associations with the concept of a politicians and elected officials, let me also note that Councilmember Salmon is a neighbor of mine as well. She lives on the next block down, and her house is usually the first place Conan and I slow down to take a look (we've gotten to where we take the walks -- rain or shine -- at a pretty good clip).
They have this genuinely amazing yard, and you'll read about it in a minute.
Dr. Salmon was good enough to respond to my questionairre for my too-infrequent series, Profile & Interview.
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When and where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Boston and raised in rural Pennsylvania and later lived in Vermont, Washington, Massachusetts, and Oregon and finally Florida.
Where did you go to college?
- Middlebury College (BA in American Literature, 1981).
- University of Washington (Masters of Librarianship, 1984).
- University of South Florida (Ph.D. in Aging Studies, 2001).
What brought you to Gulfport?
I was living in Tampa and working on my dissertation when, In 2000, I went to a dance at the Casino and fell in love with Gulfport. I bought my home two months later.
Tell us a little about Don and your son, Michael.
Two years later, I fell in love again at the Casino, this time with my husband Don. We adopted Michael from birth in 2005. Don and I work from home in research & software development. He is an avid organic gardener and musician. Michael has been fortunate to have a number of loving and creative environments for part-time and then full-time child care and school: family day care by a Gulfport provider, our city run Tot-Time program, early intervention program and then Voluntary Pre-K at Gulfport Elementary School, and now Kindergarten at Douglas L. Jamerson Magnet School for Math and Engineering.
Talk a little about the garden at your house and how it came to be.
Don started transforming our front yard into a orchard when he moved here in 2002. We went to workshops on permaculture and started http://www.permaculture.us/
In 2010, some local gardeners started Gulfport Organic Landscaping Days and visited each other's homes to get ideas and trade information. This morphed into the Gulfport Growing Greener event at the Casino in June 2011. My mom was the first organic gardener in my life. When we moved to Pennsylvania my parents pulled out hundreds of rocks and, over the decades, have created an abundant vegetable and flower garden that first fed us and then family, friends and now they share their bounty with their church and food pantry. My dad is an artist and has many paintings of mom in her garden. Perhaps that is why I made the link between gardening and art in Gulfport.
Talk a little bit about what inspired you to get started in politics/elected office when you did. What first brought your attention to politics and government? Who were some of your early political influences in American politics? What about on the world stage?
My family was my earliest political influence. I was president of the first recycling club in our high school. My family was always interested in national politics. One grandfather was a leader of the young Republicans in Vermont and the other grandfather was a lifelong Democrat who never missed an election. I have been involved with every presidential campaign since 1972 even though I could not vote for president until 1980. I remember my first local election when the polling place had a series of individual levers or you could pull one large lever and vote for everyone in one party. I'm glad that changed. I would work very hard for and be very excited about a presidential candidate and then be disappointed when the world was not immediately improved by the election of one person.
I have a much more realistic expectation now that I am an elected official. Democracy requires majority votes, which means that one person cannot change the world alone. Also, officials are human beings; they are affected by the people who show up and speak out. Extreme views on the left and right are not what is best for everyone.
What politicians influence you now? Are there political ideas from non-traditional sources that influence you?
I am a news junkie and watch several news programs each night and all debates. I am fascinated with how politicians and the media frame issues- a program that was called "clear skies" took the air out of the clean air act. Locally, the Nitrogen Consortium was founded by the biggest polluting industries which realized that if they get local cities to join them, they can take advantage of municipalities' good stewardship of our water to offset the industry impact on the flowing waters, estuaries, and open waters.
I like politicians who speak truth to power but also those who put aside partisanship and work to make life better. Bob Graham is a great example. I recommend his America: The Owner's Manual. Making Government Work for You.
What are some of the highlights from your time on the Gulfport City Council?
I learned that there are three ways Council members are effective. We can pass ordinances with at least three votes. I'm proud we passed the tax exemption for low income seniors and expanded curbside recycling.
We can change city procedures by consensus or resolution and I am proud that we added online bill paying, and opened workshops for public comment.
Individually we can make suggestions to the city manager. I was able to get 21 new or upgraded bus stops for free rather than allowing bench signs; State funded Voluntary Pre-K at Tot-Time which is free to our parents and increases city revenues; free wireless in the library; and along with the Chamber, we invited the South Pasadena Community Band for four free concerts a year. Those free concerts bring 400 people to our waterfront one Thursday a month. Working with Gulfport Growing Greener, we offered a day-long event that brought over 700 people to the waterfront
Talk about what it takes to balance a budget as complex as that of a city like Gulfport.
I don't think Gulfport's budget is more complex than any other municipal budget. Our challenge is made greater by the loss in property values and the impact of Amendment 1. This is our most important job. I was horrified to see that Michigan is taking over failing cities and replacing elected officials and staff with a governor-appointed administrator. Gulfport City Councils have always been careful with our reserves.
I support a stable budget that covers all our core services. When property values go up, the millage should go down. When property values go down, the millage should go up so you can count on a stable property tax each year. Watch out for people promising to increase your fees for basic services like water, sewer, and sanitation to balance the budget. This is a regressive tax because it charges everyone the same regardless of their means.
We rely on staff knowledge. Each department knows how to reduce expenses or increase revenues. Some examples are: Providing fire services to the unincorporated area between Gulfport and S. Pasadena. Adding VPK to tot-time to increase revenues at no cost to our parents. Contracting when it makes sense but moving staff into other jobs when possible. For example, we already contract for water & sewer, County Library services; cleaning our buildings; and red light cameras. If we contract anything in the next year, it will be from other departments; not police or fire.
Even for a smaller city like Gulfport, we can have complicated, and even contentious issues. Tell us about the issue of the Gulfport Police and dispatch. What are some of the common misconceptions folks have about that issue?
This was a very tough decision because we love our dispatch staff. We had only one dispatcher per shift; there was no way to make it less expensive. At the Sheriff's office, we have at least two people on every emergency call. One talks to you & one talks to your Gulfport police officer. Dispatch stays on the radio with that officer until everyone is safe. If another call comes in, there is plenty of backup. It is safer for everyone. Our police now have state-of-the-art GPS and access to immediate backup from S. Pasadena. We insisted and the Sheriff guaranteed our Dispatchers jobs at their current salary. The city pays $2,000 a year to keep our 893-1030 non-emergency phone number. Those calls go directly to dispatch. You will see only a Gulfport police officer at your door. Although this was a tough decision, we are now saving $300,000 every year. I am absolutely committed to keeping our local police.
Lots of folks in Gulfport talk about our boundary with St. Petersburg along 49th Street. What can we do with our neighbors in St. Petersburg to bring businesses to that area, reduce crime, and make it a seamless part of two great cities?
Many of the recommendations from the 49th Street Neighborhood Plan (updated 2006) have been implemented but there still is more to do. The South 49th Street Business Association (So49) has done the most to bridge the divide with St. Petersburg. We have a community police officer who walks those streets and looks for potential problems and finds solutions. Officer McLaughlin is working closely with Gulfport Neighbors, a group of volunteers committed to making our city safer and prettier.
Safety is a top priority. I am committed to keeping our local police. I voted in the interest of safety and our budget to contract with the Sheriff's office for police dispatch (see above). I invited Keep Pinellas Beautiful to conduct their litter survey throughout Gulfport. Thanks to their data and increased awareness of this issue, police are enforcing the state and local litter laws and ordinances that will improve property values throughout the city. We hired an engineering firm to shepherd our application for federal Brownfields funds which is one piece in attracting new business to 49th Street. I have also pressed for completing the storm water project on 49th Street.
As the incumbent, there’s no doubt you’ve heard from a lot of constituents about Clam Bayou. What are your thoughts on what we need to do there?
As a Council member I have a responsibility to look at each issue with an open mind and not just from my previous role as an activist. I want to see this long-standing problem in our city resolved in a responsible way that both protects and brings back the marine and bird life that used to exist in great numbers in the basin on the Gulfport side. This is an environmental issue, not a navigation issue.
My comments are based on data from the 2008 study conducted for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (Karlen et al., 2009) which found contaminants in the top 2 cm of sediment at significantly higher concentrations than in the control sites in 2008 or 2001 for the following: cadmium, copper, lead, zinc, PCB, lindane, dieldrin, chlordane, DDT, lead, PCB, and PAH. Additionally, based on data provided by the Audubon society, I learned that in 2002 there were 35 bird species and 2,433 birds in Clam Bayou. In 2009, there were only 26 bird species and 325 birds. This story is not unique to Clam Bayou; but other cities are reclaiming their estuaries and flowing waters while we sit silent.
In my December 2010 meeting with SWFMD engineers, I learned that the current project will not increase flushing in the basin as promised but it will reduce the amount of new toxins entering our part of the Bayou. They finally finished the 40' deep retention ponds upstream from this basin, which will hold new sediment and trash that previously went into the basin. Now, we need to safely remove the accumulated toxic sediment by obtaining proper EPA permits as was done for Lake Maggiore and Sawgrass Lake in St. Pete. We can apply for Brownfields or other grant funds to clean it up. Let's make all of Clam Bayou a safe place to fish and a destination for watching, birds, manatee and dolphins.
What issues translate for you from a national level to a local level, as you look at what people in Gulfport are talking about?
At the Institute for Elected Municipal Officials training, we heard a story about a woman speaking during public session about not getting her Social Security check. A less experienced councilmember said "Oh Mrs.Smith, we don't handle Social Security checks, you will need to talk to your Congressman." But a more seasoned councilmember said "We will contact the Congressman for you." The point was that all politics is local. When you are a local elected official, you recognize that every national issue has local impact. The foreclosure crisis affects us daily. In addition to our families being forced out of their homes, all of our property values go down and that means a loss of revenue for our core services and local safety net programs for children and seniors. The cost of health insurance impacts our employee costs. Energy costs affect our city operations and our employee and residents' finances. The sooner the country can get control over health care and energy costs, the better for all local governments.
Looking ahead five, ten, even twenty years ahead, what are some things that Florida needs to do now to make it the kind of place you’ll want to continue to raise your children?
We need a way to transition from urban sprawl to a region of concentrated towns or neighborhoods connected by convenient electric bus/vans with plenty of green space and waterways. I lived in Cambridge, MA, Seattle, WA, and Portland, OR. I know that Light rail is everyone's favorite project but the reality is that fixed rail is limited except between major destinations. I prefer a more nimble system that can respond to where people live and shop. Gulfport is almost there with its GEMS van, which could expand for all ages and run through all our neighborhoods. Sustainable and local gardens beautify the neighborhoods and provide healthy produce for families as well as teach children where food comes from. I would like us to become known as a "garden city" and as an "art city."
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about how politics and campaigns work?
I was fortunate to be unopposed when I ran for my first term. So I began the job with fresh eyes and ears wanting to make a difference. I started a blog right away because I people told me they wanted to understand what officials were thinking when they vote. People asked me if there is any point in speaking at public session or do council members come with their minds made up. I tracked my thinking through the blog in part to answer that question: http://www.jsgulfportcouncilblog.info/
Now that I am in the middle of my own first campaign (after helping on many others), I appreciate how tough it is to be an elected official and also run for office. I had proposed increasing council terms to 3 years and 4 years for the mayor to reduce the amount of time running for election. This did not get support last year but if re-elected I will try again. I have been most surprised by the so-called "social media" (often it seems to be anti-social) including blogs (it is with some trepidation that I respond to this questionnaire!). But I have also watched groups mature from using social media to shame others to using it for doing good. I hope that this becomes a trend. The internet has such promise to be useful for honest communication and transmission of ideas and also as a way to bring people together. The current council took on a lot of tough issues (you didn't ask me about code enforcement) but I think our process which often was rough at the beginning became more responsive to residents' concerns and solutions. I still find that face to face communication is the best way to communicate. My most fun times were the six town hall meetings I held in the last two years. I will continue to do these in a second term and encourage everyone to attend.
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When it comes to locally elected representation, I'm fairly lucky. Representative Rick Kriseman goes to the Florida Legislature on my behalf here in Florida House District 53. And City Councilmember Jennifer Salmon represents my interests for the city I call home -- the city where my wife and daughter (and dog) greet me every day after work.
Hey, I'm lucky to have such great elected officials, it's true. But I'm really lucky to have such great neighbors. Sometimes Conan and I will stop and talk to Don and Michael if they're out in the yard. We see Jennifer -- always busy -- every now and then, too. These aren't just the kinds of people you want attending City Council meetings on your behalf -- these are the kinds of folks you want as neighbors.
You'll know their house when you see it. They live across from the guy who always waves to me from his garage, where he's got a big screen TV hooked up and he's tooling around on cars. Just down from the people with the fancy Florida yard, and the other folks who have the dog who hates Conan.
I hope you'll support Jennifer Salmon for Gulfport City Council, Ward 3. Thanks to Councilmember Salmon for taking the time to answer these questions.