St. Petersburg City Council votes 'no' on giving money to abortion care fund

After a nearly three-and-a-half-hour discussion, the St. Petersburg City Council voted against allocating $50,000 from the General Fund to the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund Thursday.

The vote was 6-2 against the resolution with Councilmembers Deborah Figgs-Sanders and Richie Floyd voting for the resolution. Floyd made the request for the resolution in the Health, Energy, Resilience and Sustainability Committee. 

Figgs-Sanders said there’s so much more that goes into the right to choose than just the abortion itself. She said she can’t make that decision for someone just like no one can make it for her.

"I’m torn between my moral compass versus the realistic nature of trying to get work done," Council Chair Brandi Gabbard said.

Several councilmembers expressed concerns that approving the resolution would put the city at risk of getting sued and could trigger expensive legal battles with Tallahassee. Gabbard said when she was in Tallahassee recently talking to lawmakers, they assured her there would be backlash if Council approved the resolution. 

"I have been staying awake worrying and thinking about this because this is probably, in all of the difficult votes, one of the most difficult because I want to stand with the women of St. Petersburg and I just believe that there’s more work that I can personally do to do that that is not worth sacrificing because of punitive damages that we know could come down," she said.

Councilmembers also expressed concerns over more restrictive abortion-related bills at the state level right now that could become law.

Supporters of the resolution said the $50,000 would’ve been for abortion-related expenses, like travel, and not the procedure itself.

"Abortion care is healthcare, and it’s a human right," William Kilgore, a St. Pete resident, said during the public comment period of the meeting. 

Several councilmembers, though, said the wording teeters too close to being interpreted differently. The city’s attorney said it all comes down to the word affiliated. She said since the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund doesn’t own or operate the clinics, nor is it manage the clinics, and instead makes referrals for women, it isn’t affiliated with the clinics and therefore, the resolution doesn’t go against state law.

The Council did approve a separate resolution supporting the rights of residents to make reproductive health decisions for themselves, including abortion care, in a 6-2 vote. That resolution also requests the administration not to criminalize people making these reproductive health decisions.

Councilmembers Ed Montanari and Gina Driscoll voted against this resolution. Both talked about concerns they had about possible unintended consequences of the resolution’s wording, like if it would send a message to the police chief about what to enforce.

Several people spoke on both sides of the debate at the meeting.

"It funds abortion," Scott Mahurin of the group Florida Preborn Rescue, said to the city council. "You will be sued probably by the state because it funds abortion. You will have legal battles that will be protracted. Abortion takes a human life."

Florida Preborn Rescue held a protest against the resolutions Thursday morning before the City Council meeting. 

"When is my community going to stop embracing the culture of death," another resident said during the public comment period.

"Today, I decided to be brave and share with you that I myself have had an abortion," Laurie Meggesin from the League of Women Voters in Pinellas County, said. "I stand here today because I was able to make a choice in my reproductive destiny and for some of you who didn’t know someone who has had an abortion, now you do."

They walked away from the meeting with mixed emotions.

"Of course it’s disappointing," Bree Wallace, a leadership volunteer with the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund, said. "We all wanted a yes, but we’re still going to help people travel. We’re still going to help with abortions, so even without this, nothing different is going to happen."

"It would’ve been nice to have more money for travel, but we’re still going to be there helping Tampa Bay residents, St. Pete residents, everyone in this area," Wallace said.

"For me personally from a moral standpoint, I would never want as a taxpayer, my money to be going towards a fund that promotes something that I don’t believe in whatsoever, but I think from a legality standpoint it makes sense they made the right decision," resident Stephanie McBrid said.

State Representatives Berny Jacques and Mike Beltran, neither of whom represent St. Pete, sent Mayor Ken Welch and Councilmember Gina Driscoll a letter in March about the resolution to allocate funds to the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund. They threatened to oppose state funding for St. Pete if Council approved the resolution today. 

"The protection of the unborn will always be my business no matter where it’s happening," Representative Jacques, who attended Thursday morning’s protest, said. "Secondly, a violation of state law will always be my problem."

Some council members said it was a scare tactic. 

"I will not compromise my values because of threats, and I will not be blackmailed out of doing what I believe is right," Councilmember Floyd said. 

Councilmembers said they’d like to continue conversations about how to help and speak up for reproductive rights outside of City Hall.