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Despite transparency pledge, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster keeps mum on budget

ST. PETERSBURG — When Bill Foster ran for mayor in 2009, he vowed to be transparent.

"If it involves your property or your money, then you will be involved in the decisionmaking, early and often. No secret deals or insincere after-the-fact visioning programs," he promised on his campaign website.

Now, more than a year into office, Foster proudly points to his record of accessibility and transparency. He holds frequent, scheduled appearances at diners, community centers and neighborhood meetings so he can interact one-on-one with residents. He meets often with constituents in his office. And he makes himself available to reporters to discuss policies and decisions.

But Foster has become more guarded when it comes to details about next year's budget.

He told the Times last month that he won't comment anymore about ongoing matters, meaning issues that he's still considering or that are still being vetted, such as the budget.

"I have learned over time how to handle press situations," Foster said. "I regretted making offbeat comments that have appeared in stories prior to me having all the facts. Or I've said something before an idea has been fully vetted, like the pools."

Foster was referring to last year, when he told the Times he intended to shut down city pools to close a budget deficit. The subsequent backlash led him to change his mind, and he would later call the public response to his plan a "land mine."

With next year's budget, Foster vows he won't reveal any proposed cuts until they have been fully vetted. It wasn't until an April 28 public forum that Foster publicly disclosed information about next year's budget, including how he plans to close a $12 million deficit. He plans to have two more budget forums, where the public can review and comment on his proposals.

He equates these public meet-and-greets with improving his accessibility. However, they usually attract few of the city's 250,000 residents. The first forum drew 17 people.

Foster released budget proposals that cut at least 27 full-time positions, including eight positions in upper management. But he won't name the positions, leading many to speculate.

"One of the things that (the City Council) is struggling with now is what employees are going to be let go," said Council member Leslie Curran. "City Hall seems to be operating on rumors. That's not good for employees, for morale."

Curran isn't the only council member who has picked up on Foster's change in approach to the budget. Wengay Newton also has noted Foster's reticence, and he doesn't think it's necessarily a bad thing.

"They keep saying stuff is tentative, so there's nothing to harp on," Newton said. "He learned last year from the pool closings. It got a lot of people upset. So now he's more like, 'Don't announce anything; just say everything is in the early stages.' "

That can be frustrating for those wanting to follow along.

Travis Jarman, the budget committee chairman for the Council of Neighborhood Associations, said Foster is falling short of the transparency he promised. Jarman said he worked closely with Foster's staff on last year's budget. Not so much this year, he said.

"It's like this year they want to keep it to themselves and get it in final form, then release it so it's polished," said Jarman, who added he's not speaking on behalf of CONA, a coalition of neighborhood associations.

City officials have made available documents that detail proposed 1 percent, 3 percent or 5 percent cuts in various departments. It's unclear which cuts will be made or whether all cuts being considered are in the documents.

As an example of better transparency, Jarman points to Pinellas County, which already has hundreds of pages of budget documents on its website, including a survey for residents. The city has only documents pertaining to this year's budget, along with previous years.

"Technically, we should be doing that," said City Administrator Tish Elston, referring to the county's release of information. "We just haven't had the time."

The budget isn't due to the council until summer.

Clearwater and Hillsborough County also have next year's budget documents on their websites, but Tampa doesn't. CONA's president, Mike Gulley, said he's not convinced Pinellas County is any more open than St. Petersburg.

"As far as I could tell, there wasn't any hope in changing things at the county last year," Gulley said. "If that's transparency, I'm not sure I want that."

Gulley said he thinks Foster wants to be as open as he can be, but he has to balance the realities of his office, which include staff members who are more secretive than he is.

"The mayor is well-intentioned," Gulley said. "He's been receptive to our concerns, and I feel he's more transparent than (former Mayor Rick) Baker."

Foster dismisses concerns that he's not living up to his campaign promise, even if he agrees he's disclosing less to reporters.

"That was my agreement with the people, and it wasn't meant to allow one reporter to write about something before it was done," Foster said. "I'm as transparent as the day I was elected."

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

Despite transparency pledge, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster keeps mum on budget 05/10/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 6:03pm]
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