St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman will be announcing soon that the city’s main library will be renamed after former President Barack Obama, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
The name change will accompany a $6 million renovation for the library, which will be funded by the “Penny for Pinellas” sales tax fund. Other upgrades will include additional parking spaces, restroom updates, renovations to the patio and outdoor areas, and new programming areas inside.
St. Petersburg’s City Code prohibits naming public buildings after living people, but the city council has the ability to waive that rule. According to the Times, they previously waived the rule in 2014, Kriseman’s first year in office, to rename the Wildwood Recreation Center after Thomas “Jet” Jackson, “a longtime city employee known for mentoring young people and as a pioneer in organizing youth sports during segregation.”
And so it appears the city will be waiving the rules again to name the library after Obama. The timing this month is intentional to honor the country’s first African-American president during Black History Month. A laudable sentiment to be sure, but some are questioning the reasoning behind naming a local government community building after Obama, who has no connection to the city at all.
Well, no connection other than endorsing Kriseman in his tough-fought election last year.
The Times’ own political editor, Adam Smith, questioned the name change on his Facebook page earlier today, noting that Obama “has nothing to do” with St. Petersburg. Kriseman’s championing of this was, in Smith’s view, the “Mayor embracing his hyper-partisan image.”
“What if the next mayor changed [the] name to Donald J. Trump Library?” asked Smith.
That question, and the original Times article, set off a high-spirited — sometimes contentious — debate. Your feelings on naming the library after Obama likely are influenced by your personal political leanings, but maybe the better question is a broader one: Why is the city rule against naming buildings after living people being so easily disregarded?
The reasoning behind this long-standing tradition of waiting until someone is dead to use their name is good and sound. First of all, it greatly reduces the risk that the person will be involved in some sort of scandal. We are flawed humans after all, but some flaws take awhile to become known.
That was the problem facing the administrators at Wheaton College, a tiny Christian college in Illinois that named a building after their most famous graduate, who would go on to become Speaker of the House of Representatives — Dennis Hastert. Wheaton would end up having to remove Hastert’s name and issue a statement that they were praying for him and his victim, after the news broke that Hastert had paid millions of dollars to a former student to keep quiet about sexual abuse allegations.
I highly doubt that type of scandal would be associated with Obama — agree with his politics or not, he is a devoted husband and father — but even if no unfortunate misdeeds surface, there is still something smarmy about bestowing an honor like the name of a public building on someone who is still alive.
Former University of Florida President John Lombardi wrote a blog post at Inside Higher Ed discussing some of the controversies around naming buildings on college campuses. Regarding the wisdom of saving name change honors for the deceased, he wrote:
We like to name buildings after dead people for several reasons. These individuals will do nothing to embarrass the university in the future. We can be reasonably sure that their accomplishments are truly significant and praiseworthy. Any controversy will be somewhat muted (but not necessarily eliminated) by the reluctance to appear churlish towards a recently deceased individual, although, being deceased is not a guarantee of universal approbation. In any academic setting, there will be those who do not believe an individual so recognized appropriately represents the values of the institution. However, in most cases, we can withstand the controversy.
“Putting the names of the living, particularly politicians, on buildings, airports and streets is at least crass — and at worst, foolhardy,” wrote Alan Freeman at the Canadian political site iPolitics, in 2015 when there was a debate over renaming Calgary International Airport for then-Prime Minister Stephen J. Harper.
“Posthumous recognition is the mature way to go — but sadly, in a world where you’re only as famous as your last tweet, nobody seems anxious to wait, especially politicians,” concluded Freeman.
Only as famous as your last tweet? We may have a Donald J. Trump library sooner rather than later if that’s the case.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.