ST. PETERSBURG — There weren't enough chairs to hold all the people who came to hear Goliath Davis tell his side of the story.
More than 150 people crowded into a room Friday at the Enoch Davis Center as Davis, a controversial public figure who has served the city for nearly 40 years, said he had been fired by Mayor Bill Foster.
The scene was one of nearly unanimous support for Davis, who as senior administrator of community enrichment was the highest ranking African-American at City Hall.
The response from leaders across the city wasn't as unified.
Some reacted with anger. Some were relieved. Others said it was about time.
But many wondered, what now?
"It's going to create a huge vacuum as far as representation … of the people in the Midtown/ Childs Park area," said council member Wengay Newton, the only black elected official in city government.
"He provided a seat at the table for them, and also a communication network to the mayor."
Newton and council member Leslie Curran said they were surprised by Foster's decision. Both praised Davis' work.
"He was able to sit down with people throughout the city and discuss things and get things done," Curran said, adding that she told Foster on Friday she disagreed with his decision.
If the mayor is bent on reorganizing, she said, there are other administrators he could target.
Others, however, weren't as convinced of Davis' usefulness at City Hall.
"Ridding us of Goliath Davis will give other community leaders an opportunity to develop positive relationships directly with the city," said Sami Scott, an activist in the black community. "This community will stand with the city."
Former City Council member Kathleen Ford, who lost to Foster in 2009, said she wasn't surprised by the firing.
"There was a heck of a lot of waste in administration these days," she said. "There's a lot of cutting of fat at the top that needs to be done."
But Deveron Gibbons, another former mayoral candidate, predicted the move will cost Foster support among black voters.
"There's definitely going to be some fallout politically," Gibbons said. "People are smart, and they see through the underlying issues here."
Gibbons said he could understand if Foster fired Davis for poor performance, but that wasn't the case. Davis received glowing remarks on his last evaluation in December.
"It was the right call, but not necessarily for the right reasons," said Scott Wagman, who also lost a bid for mayor to Foster.
Wagman said it was "unconscionable" for Davis not to attend the funerals of three recently slain St. Petersburg police officers. Davis said he was fired because he didn't attend Tuesday's funeral for Officer David S. Crawford.
But, Wagman added, Davis' firing should have happened much earlier in Foster's term. Davis' role was largely that of an emissary, he said.
Even Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter, a staunch Foster supporter, said she believes the mayor was pressured to get rid of Davis for the wrong reasons.
"I love my mayor . . . but I think he made a mistake," she said. "Today I'm sad, 'cause this done knocked us back 10 years."
She and Davis didn't always get along, Lassiter said, but she respected the work he did.
Hours before Friday's 2 p.m. news conference, a group of African-American and community leaders met at Bethel Community Baptist Church to discuss Davis' firing and present a unified message, said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the city's NAACP chapter.
"For many African-Americans, it will no doubt symbolize a move of the city toward exclusion and appeasing the anger that is a fallout from the three shootings," he said.
"I think what comes next is critical to creating a climate of collaboration and healing, but if nothing is done, people will be left to their own interpretations of not only what happened, but what it means for the future."
Sykes stressed his group isn't asking for Davis' reinstatement.
They do believe his position should remain intact, and called the mayor's plan to fold Davis' departments into others "unacceptable."
"There is a role that needs to be filled, there are issues that continue to disproportionately impact the African-American community that this administration is not addressing," he said.
The NAACP and Agenda 2010, an advocacy group focused on policies affecting black residents, offered to co-host a meeting with Foster to discuss those issues.
Sykes said it is important to handle the situation properly because recent events have created an undercurrent of racial tension.
"Let's face it, it has been hard . . . for people to distinguish the acts of an individual from the community from which they come from. The African-American community feels they are under the microscope.''
Times researcher Natalie Watson and staff writers Waveney Ann Moore, Luis Perez, Ron Matus and Emily Nipps contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.