Bill Foster's first year as St. Petersburg mayor filled with tweaks

ST. PETERSBURG — Bill Foster doesn't stray from his roots.

He lives in the Shore Acres home where he grew up. He's married to his high school sweetheart.

As a boy, he dreamed of running St. Petersburg, which his maternal great-grandparents helped settle in the early 1900s by opening a general store.

But while his journey to becoming the city's 39th mayor may not have been short, Foster, 47, finds himself at a destination far removed from the hometown of his youth.

Gone are the days when the coffers brimmed with property tax revenues and possibility. Foster governs the city of 250,000 in the era of subtraction, making decisions about what to do without.

One year into his administration, Foster says he doesn't plan to unveil any grand plan or develop a broad vision for the future. For him, now is not a time for big ideas.

"It's all about progress," Foster said. "But we still have an economy that, if we're not careful, can defeat a progressive vision."

His predecessor, Rick Baker, helped shape the downtown skyline and brought commerce to Midtown. He used tax breaks to secretly broker deals with corporations to create jobs.

Foster doesn't innovate, he tweaks. His best ideas, so far, are borrowed. He fixes what's already in place to make it better, cheaper, faster.

He wanted to be mayor more to preserve the city than to change it.

• • •

The economy didn't keep Foster from following through on some promises from the 2009 campaign trail: relaxing the police chase policy, red-light cameras, tackling the homeless problem.

Less clear, despite his efforts, is what kind of progress he'll make on issues that will define St. Petersburg and the region for years to come: the Tampa Bay Rays, the Pier and the moribund BayWalk. He has made some bold moves — striking a deal that helped ensure last week's opening of the new Salvador Dalí museum, supporting a ban on street solicitation — and suffered from missteps.

He decided, without public input, to eliminate Boyd Hill rangers and was confronted by an angry mob who took over one of his Mayor's Night Out events.

Later, he announced his plan to close four city pools — including Jennie Hall pool, a historic African-American pool — before an outcry forced him to rethink the move.

More tough decisions are ahead, nearly all tied to overcoming a projected $12 million shortfall in next year's budget.

His lack of a well-defined vision hasn't bothered many supporters, who chalk up it up to the uncertain times.

"Bill has been given a tough hand with the economy," said David Feaster, president and CEO of Cornerstone Community Bank. "George Bush had an agenda of where he wanted to take this country after getting elected, and then the twin towers fell and he had a new reality to deal with. You have an agenda when you start, and then you have the hand you are dealt."

• • •

St. Petersburg might be Florida's fourth-largest city, but its political class has long been regarded as a relatively small one, where the members seem to have long-standing personal connections and outsiders need not apply.

Foster thrived in this insular environment. His dad, David Foster, said his son had an ordinary childhood. He sang in choir. He warmed the bench for the Northeast High football team.

He mingled with politicos. His father's high school chum, Robert Ulrich, was mayor from 1987 to 1991. His parents played bridge with David Fischer, who served as mayor from 1991 to 2000.

The only time Foster really left St. Petersburg was to go to college, then law school in Alabama. Wendy, who by then was his wife, worked while he was going through law school. He supplemented her income by clerking and working at a funeral home, where he became an apprentice embalmer. He was an "expert make-up man," his father said.

"He didn't like fooling with people who were alive and injured," David Foster said. "But he told me if they're dead, it's not a problem."

He returned to St. Petersburg in 1988 to work at his father's probate and real estate law firm.

In 1992, he applied to be city manager, but didn't get the job. A year later, at 29, he ran for City Council against Ed Cole, who happened to be his mother's pediatrician — and his own.

He lost.

After a long stint on the city's Nuisance Abatement Board, he was appointed to fill a council vacancy in 1998.

He wouldn't lose another election, even when he was challenged in 2003 by Bill Dudley — his former football coach.

"I got into Leadership St. Petersburg in 1980 and I wrote an essay that said the community is run by a small core group of people who go from one meeting to the next and see the same faces," said council member Herb Polson. "That hasn't changed."

As a council member, Foster established a reputation for politically pragmatic votes and a love for seeing his name in print, a habit that gave him a higher profile than his council colleagues.

He helped coin the phrase "stealth mayor" to describe Baker's penchant for making deals behind closed doors, but largely backed the mayor's initiatives.

City employees have been struck by differences between the two conservative Republicans. Tall and angular, Baker seemed in constant motion. Foster, a husky 6-1, whistles show tunes as he ambles through City Hall.

Foster likes to drop in, unannounced, on city departments. It's good for morale, he said, and reminds him of who really keeps the city going. He carries a police radio and likes to go to crime scenes. When cops closed down a bikini bar because of obscenity complaints this summer, TV cameras found Foster inside, getting a tour and talking tough.

"Quite frankly, these places aren't welcome in St. Petersburg," he told reporters at the late night raid.

He relishes small, personal connections with residents. At a Mayor's Night Out event in April, Kyran Carey, a Snell Isle homeowner, complained to him about the grass at her dog park.

"He wrote it down, and we got it," Carey said. "I think the world of him. He even got us poop bags."

"He's been a steady hand," said Scott Wagman, who endorsed Foster after he lost his own bid for mayor in the primary. "On an administrative level, he's far beyond Baker. He's more transparent, he loves getting into the trenches and talking to employees. He's very hands on, almost to a fault."

Outside the realm of city government, Foster doesn't promote himself. Baker actively sought the spotlight, often attending events with the city's spokeswoman and a camera crew. Foster is usually alone. He has had few official news conferences. He doesn't plan to give a "State of the City" speech. He says the attention makes him feel "embarrassed".

"When I was over there," he says from his City Hall office, pointing to the side of the building where the council offices are, "I got criticized because of the attention I got. The goal then was to get my name out there because I wanted to be mayor. I don't have that goal now, because I'm already the mayor."

• • •

His relations with his former colleagues are cordial, but strained. Baker allowed council members to request information from any city employee. Foster steers questions through him or his top administrators.

"I had council members trying to direct staff," Foster said. "There were just too many cooks in the kitchen."

Some council members complain that Foster doesn't visit them to politick, which irks them when he makes big announcements like Pinellas Safe Harbor, the homeless shelter he unveiled late last year without their input.

"Bill is kind of distant," said Jeff Danner. "He always has been. It's tough to read him. Baker walked the halls and really worked it. He'd do something and realize he didn't have the votes, and then walk the halls. If you didn't like it, and told him, another version would come back. You don't see that with Bill. He's been in my office a couple of times, but he usually stays over on his half."

"With Foster, you read about it in the newspaper," said Wengay Newton, who attended high school with Foster. "He shouldn't forget where he came from."

Foster kept the same top administrators that Baker had, who were held over from the Fischer administration. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio brought in all new administrators when she started in 2003.

"I had my vision and strategic goals, and I knew I had to bring in new talent," Iorio said. "Tampa has benefited from new perspectives, but I'd hesitate to take my situation and apply it to St. Petersburg. Every mayor has to work with people they're comfortable with."

Foster knew the staff from his council years. He said he found no reason to replace them.

"The machine wasn't broken," Foster said. "It might have needed a different perspective from the top, but I still think we fill potholes better than anyone else."

How does he know that? "I just know," he replied.

Despite his nine years on the council, Foster initially struggled to find his footing.

He said he had to "learn how to be mayor." He spent most of his time with the budget.

His early successes came from his support of ideas that were not his own. Jim Kennedy, who is now council chair, said he checked with Foster early on to make sure he wouldn't veto an extension of bar hours to 3 a.m., or a ban on street solicitation. Baker had always threatened to veto them, Kennedy said.

Foster did support them and got much of the credit, especially for getting tough on panhandling. Once enforced, it seemed to remove panhandlers almost overnight.

"That was a very bold step he took," said Polson. "He went out on a limb on that, and it paid off."

Foster hasn't let his religious beliefs, including an oft-reported repudiation of Darwinism, become an issue because he rarely, if ever, mentions them.

"He knows that people who don't support his views are looking for something to attack," his father, David, 78, said. "And it's easy to attack if he were to do anything that would raise a suspicion he was letting his beliefs show through."

Foster was praised by some for attending the St. Pete Gay Pride Parade and, more significantly, giving domestic benefits to the partners of gay police officers, something Baker wouldn't do.

"Foster realized how fundamentally unfair it was not to do it," said Steve Kornell, a council member who is gay. "That was huge."

Aside from aggressively recruiting international baseball teams to play spring training at Al Lang Field, Foster's top victories were all examples of him nudging existing issues along.

He put pressure on the City Council to finally decide to demolish the Pier.

"It's not popular with some people in the city," said Virginia Littrell, a former council colleague and friend. "But it was the right thing to do."

Foster supporter Ed Montanari, an airline pilot who sat on a volunteer Pier task force, thinks Foster should have waited for more public input on the struggling landmark.

"Mayor Foster tends to do his vetting of issues out in public," Montanari said. "Rick (Baker) would study an issue, get things lined up behind the scenes, then bring whatever issue to the public. I don't fault either approach."

Montanari and others called Foster's move to support the Dalí Museum a "brilliant" move. Falling short of its construction budget, the museum asked the city for $5 million. Foster said the city would contribute $2.5 million only with a matching gift from Pinellas County. The museum opened this week to rave reviews.

• • •

Homelessness has vexed the city for at least a decade. By the time Foster was elected, council members Danner and Leslie Curran had already flown to San Antonio, Texas, in search of a solution.

They toured a 37-acre, $117 million compound that some viewed as a model for how to treat the homeless using a reward system. They were so impressed that they invited its CEO, Robert Marbut, to St. Petersburg to share his ideas.

The Texan, whom Foster hired as a consultant, has been a driving force behind the mayor's homeless strategies.

"He took a firm but fair approach," Charlie Harris, a local lawyer, said of Foster. "He's tried to find a solution to a difficult problem that has affected downtown. He's been very effective on this issue."

Several political observers say it's too early to evaluate what kind of mayor Foster will be. But there's little doubt, he's different from Baker.

"Yeah, this job is about filling potholes," said Deveron Gibbons, a former Baker campaign aide who ran for mayor before losing in the primary and endorsing Foster. "But where is he going to take the city 15 years from now? He needs to put a plan together and let people know what his vision is."

Yet that's an approach that doesn't necessarily fit in with Foster's view of limited government. He's a hometown boy happy with St. Petersburg's place in the world. It doesn't need to be a Tampa, he says, and he doesn't need to lead the way to recovery.

"Government doesn't have to provide progress," Foster said. "It just shouldn't impede it."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8037.

Bill Foster's first year as St. Petersburg mayor filled with tweaks 01/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 8:28pm]

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