ST. PETERSBURG — Council Chair Leslie Curran and Mayor Bill Foster often disagree publicly, but now their ongoing feud is heating up behind closed doors.
In their latest skirmish, Curran says Foster has directed city staffers not to work with her and is refusing to meet with her without a third party present.
"I have served as a City Council member for fifteen years and have never been discriminated against as I have been by Mayor Foster," Curran wrote in an email this summer to City Attorney John Wolfe.
The friction between the city's top two elected officials is visible in workshops and public meetings. This spat could be the first glimpse into next year's mayoral election if Curran seeks Foster's job.
"I have not decided that yet," she said Friday. "It's a consideration."
In Curran's email to Wolfe, she complained that Foster banned her from a June tour of the Melrose Mercy neighborhood to discuss housing issues with staffers. At the same time, Foster allowed council member Karl Nurse to attend.
Then, on June 18, she said Foster brought city administrator Tish Elston to witness their weekly meeting. Curran said Foster explained Elston's presence was due to the disdain Curran has for him.
"I tried to explain that there is a big difference between disdain and disagreement on issues, and that I have never treated him in such a manner," Curran wrote. "I then left the meeting."
Foster declined to comment when he learned about the email from the Tampa Bay Times.
"I'm not going to comment on some illusory statement that is purely political in nature," he said. "I don't know what more I can say. Any issue we have will be handled privately."
Curran asked Wolfe to intervene in the dispute. He refused.
"That's a personal matter between those two," Wolfe said. "I think it's blown over some."
Curran stressed Friday that it's not a personal matter and that the gag orders are making staffers uncomfortable.
"They should not have that placed on them," she said. "This is unprofessional. You don't treat people differently."
The tension has been brewing for months.
Curran has been critical of Foster's dealings with the Tampa Bay Rays and Tropicana Field. In April, she said "Foster is almost a non-entity" when he didn't settle on a way to raise revenue to cover a $10 million budget shortfall.
Now, as the city prepares to tackle a $10 million budget shortfall next month by either raising property taxes or implementing a fire-readiness fee, Curran said Foster needs to step up and lead and stop placating everyone on different sides of each issue.
"Take a position and know it's the right one," she said. "It's not a popularity contest."
In an interview this week, Nurse said Foster did not give him preferential treatment on the home tour, but that it was because he represents the Melrose Mercy neighborhood.
Curran's issues, he said, stem more from human nature than politics. "I try to get along with people," Nurse said. "She has a testy relationship with the mayor and that makes it harder to get things done."
Council member Wengay Newton disagreed.
Curran, he said, should have been on the housing tour since she heads the housing committee. Newton said he also faces the same roadblocks as Curran with city staffers.
Foster, he said, will not make staff available and doesn't want to hear ideas from council members. What troubles Newton the most, he said, is that Foster knows the importance of working with staff since he sat on the council for 10 years.
"It's not a political statement," Newton said. "She's dead on. He's making it difficult to get anything done. It's complete chaos."
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.