ST. PETERSBURG — During his 2009 mayoral campaign, Bill Foster promised transparency.
"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 pledged on his campaign website.
But at a public gathering Wednesday, Foster refused to provide details about a secret plan to keep the Tampa Bay Rays from leaving the city, and said he would not give candid answers to residents' questions on other issues if a reporter was present.
After an event he calls "Breakfast With the Mayor," where residents can talk one on one with the city's top official, Foster complained about all the questions he's facing about a secret plan he mentioned briefly during last Thursday's City Council meeting.
"I'd love to know some of the plans that the Rays have as far as their future, but no one seems to be camping at their doorstep," Foster said. "But they have the perfect answer. They have a perfect answer: I have no comment.
"It's about timing and vetting with the proper people before you offer it up for mass consumption," he said.
Foster sat at a table Wednesday morning to talk to a group of residents that included a reporter.
"Is he your guest?" said Foster, referring to a St. Petersburg Times reporter. "Because I wouldn't have a candid conversation. So it's up to you. It's not up to me, it's up to these folks. I don't invite — I'm not doing a press conference so I don't invite the newspaper in to speak candidly with people unless the people" want a reporter there.
St. Petersburg resident Cathy Wilson responded: "We would prefer to solve our problems. And if that means, if your presence here means the mayor will not talk candidly, we would ask you to leave."
Judy Ellis, also at the table, chimed in: "We don't want to cramp his style."
After the breakfast, Wilson said she would have preferred the reporter listen, "but if it meant that the mayor would not be candid, I prefer his candor."
Since becoming mayor in January 2010, Foster has held monthly breakfasts throughout the city, which typically turn into opportunities for residents to address narrow concerns, such as code enforcement issues related to their properties.
Foster previously has asked reporters to leave him alone with residents, but his stated reason has been that residents aren't comfortable when the media is present.
On Wednesday, however, Foster seemed unwilling to discuss many issues with a reporter listening.
At one point, as a Times reporter was allowed to join a conversation at a breakfast table, Foster stopped talking and said, "I won't finish that sentence."
A few minutes later, when a resident raised concerns about troublemakers at the BayWalk entertainment complex, Foster started to answer, then said:
"I'll be a little more reserved, but then I'll come back. I'll come back around when I know I don't have to worry about reading it in the newspaper."
Foster makes no secret that he is more reserved when talking to reporters. He said it's important that he speak frankly with residents.
This includes talking about his plan to keep the Rays in town. He'll talk about it with individual residents — just not news organizations.
"What's funny is that a couple of people have asked me about the secret plan today and I said, 'Sure, here it is. It's not a secret. I told half the people that were in the room today. It's not a secret. It's just not for public consumption,' " he said.
He said it's one thing when the information comes from him and an entirely different thing "if it's being regurgitated and spun by you guys," Foster said.
He said he thinks his office is being transparent.
"I don't think anyone in this restaurant would say I lack transparency," he said. "I've been very candid with everybody that has come to talk to me. I'm very accessible and I don't pull any punches."
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8804.