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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Foster to City: It's tough being me



ST. PETERSBURG -- Bill Foster told about 150 attendees at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Luncheon today that his first year as mayor has been a "glorious ride, satisfying fun."

But he also spent much of his speech, which resembled an abbreviated "State of the City" speech, telling the St. Petersburg Yacht Club crowd about how hard it was overseeing a city of about 250,000. He said his 10 years on City Council didn't prepare him for what it would be like as mayor.

"This past year was pretty intense, it's not like anything I expected," Foster said. "I didn't expect being under the microscope. The scrutiny. Your life isn't your own."

Even weekend trips to Publix, Lowe's or Home Depot turned into impromptu meetings with residents, Foster said. He said he welcomes such interactions, and emphasized that his regularly scheduled events like "Breakfast with the Mayor" and "Mayor's Night Out", where residents can meet with him individually, are meant encourage such one-on-one access.

But Foster pointed out that his commitment comes at a price. For instance, at social gatherings and official functions, where everyone else is scarfing down appetizers and draining cocktails and wine, Foster said he abstains.

"If you see me at social gatherings, I don't eat or drink," said Foster, who quickly added that he does eat and drink, just not at the gatherings.

The point of such a sacrifice, he said, is so that people have complete access to him while they talk to him.  He also takes calls at all hours of the day. He's instructed his fire and police chiefs to call him in case of large fires and homicides. When a water main broke in Pinellas County late last month, he gave his city's water utility the go-ahead to help out because he took the call while having dinner with his family.

"You are never off," Foster said.

The rest of his talk was given to questions, where he was forced to answer questions about the actual state of the city.

He was grilled about the Pier (he doesn't support a referendum on whether to demolish it), what his biggest challenge is (the homeless), recycling (he wants to keep it voluntary), school vouchers (he supports them as long as they don't take money out of current public school budgets), and the budget (it continues to shrink, with an estimated $8 million deficit expected this year, which is at least smaller than last year's $12 million hole).

Foster drew laughs for his self-deprecating humor and applause for the new shelter, which opens tomorrow. Many in the audience gave the speech raves, saying it hit upon all the points they were interested in. But even those who liked it said it only briefly touched on problems that will only get worse. Rep. Rick Kriseman said Foster could have braced the crowd better for the upcoming legislative session, which is expected to slash government spending and force local governments to pick up the difference.

"This session could be devastating for the city," Kriseman said. "I would have loved for the mayor to have said that because how else are people going to know that this is happening and for them to do something about it?"

Foster said he would have given a more in-depth speech if he had "another hour." But he accomplished what he wanted, he said.

"It was about me gettting over the first year jitters," he said. "I knew the questions would be, ok, enough about how great you are, and really be about the issues."


-- Michael Van Sickler, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 7:28pm]


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