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Foster settles in on first day on the job

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster photographs a sign outside Mount Vernon Elementary School, where he visited third-graders during his first workday as mayor. “That’s the first time I’ve seen it in lights,” he said. He told the students he always wanted to be mayor.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster photographs a sign outside Mount Vernon Elementary School, where he visited third-graders during his first workday as mayor. “That’s the first time I’ve seen it in lights,” he said. He told the students he always wanted to be mayor.

ST. PETERSBURG — The changeable sign outside Mount Vernon Elementary School carried a simple message Monday afternoon: "Welcome Mayor Foster."

Bill Foster, St. Petersburg's newly sworn-in chief executive, slipped his iPhone out of its waist case and took a digital photo of the placard.

"That's the first time I've seen it in lights," he crowed.

It was one of a handful of red-letter moments for Foster, who spent his first official day as mayor crisscrossing the city greeting firefighters, meeting with cabinet members, fielding questions from the media and cheering on third-graders.

The new title was a dream come true for the native resident with longtime mayoral ambitions.

He started his day by coasting his black Lexus into a priority parking space reserved for the mayor at City Hall. He met with Tish Elston, the former first deputy mayor he recently named city administrator, in the freshly rearranged mayoral office.

Gone were the city maps, scorecards and laudatory tchotchkes of his predecessor, Rick Baker, who was term-limited after nearly nine years as mayor. A desk, once tucked in the far corner, now sat facing the door. The bookshelves and table tops were nearly bare except for a handful of family pictures, including portraits of his two teenage children as infants.

His weekly calender was mostly blank. He wanted to catch his breath and learn how to be mayor before scheduling too many events, he said.

Foster will meet with city administrators Tuesday morning, a weekly appointment kept by Baker, and discuss how to implement the growing list of promises he made before taking office.

"It's time to turn that vision into reality," said Foster.

His immediate goals are to host a job summit for the unemployed, lobby for stronger anti-panhandling laws and install public bathrooms for the homeless.

As for his other 60-plus campaign promises, he said he will tackle those in a timely manner.

"It's not like we have to implement that in the first 100 days," he said.

Like many first days, Monday was about introductions.

He attended the fire department's promotion ceremony and posed for pictures with newly ranked lieutenants.

"This is my first official duty as your new mayor, and I couldn't be happier," he told the room.

Fire Chief James Large observed Foster's promotion from civilian to mayor by presenting him with a white fire helmet worn by the department's highest-ranking officials.

"I'm speechless," Foster said.

He headed back to City Hall for television interviews and a meeting about employee benefits and the city's code of conduct.

There was a snag. Foster discovered he didn't qualify for city-subsidized health care for 90 more days. He hurried over to his former office, his family law practice, to make sure he and his family were still covered by that medical plan. He was. No worries.

Later, he stopped by assistant fire Chief William Jolley's retirement party. Someone called out for the crowd to hush and allow the mayor to say a few words.

"Oh, geez," Foster jested. "Who's that?"

He then launched into his second impromptu speech of the day.

"We've got a great city," he assured the crowd of city employees.

A city administrator took the microphone to praise Jolley, but Foster was already out the door.

He headed over to Mount Vernon, where principal Peggy Pearson gave him a brief tour. Foster said helping local elementary schools succeed would be a top priority in his administration.

In Cheryl Bradley's third-grade classroom, 8-year-old Nathaniel Ferreira stood up in excitement. "I've always wanted to see the mayor," he exclaimed.

"Hello, Nathaniel, I'm Mayor Foster," came the response.

Foster offered the students some encouragement: "I always wanted to be the mayor, even when I was your age. You just have to study and read."

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8846.

Foster settles in on first day on the job 01/04/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2010 12:26am]
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