ST. PETERSBURG — A prolonged economic slump and three fatal shootings of police officers made for a difficult year for Mayor Bill Foster, but support among city residents remained steady, according to a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll.
In his second year, Foster received positive ratings from 38 percent of residents, who said he was doing either an excellent or good job. That's nearly the same as the 39 percent he scored in 2010. Those who say he's doing average climbed from 25 percent to 35 percent, so the percentage of residents rating his performance either average or better was 72 percent, up 8 points from last year.
Still, his negative numbers doubled while the number of residents who are unsure of his performance dropped.
His support came after a year in which Foster, 48, was beset with several problems beyond his control, including a down economy that continued to strangle the city's budget, prompting him to slash nearly 60 full-time and part-time positions, raise parking meter rates — they've doubled to a $1 an hour since he took office — and cut back on library and city pool hours.
But it was the Jan. 24 fatal shootings of Sgt. Thomas Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz, followed a month later by the killing of Officer David S. Crawford, that posed the biggest challenge in Foster's second year.
"I will be happy to see 2011 in the rearview mirror," Foster said. "The year started out so horrifically that it took a lot of time to recover."
Amid the bad news, many residents gave Foster the benefit of the doubt.
"Foster has been doing what he can," said Jesse Jackson, 63, who lives near Coquina Key. "It's just been a tough time."
Many residents were most impressed with Foster's handling of the police shootings.
"He handled the tragedy well," said Barry Marshall, 65, who lives near Snell Isle. "He did a lot to keep this city unified."
Negative views of Foster grew as more people made up their minds about him. Residents who said they were unsure about the mayor fell drastically, from 25 percent in 2010 to 8 percent this year. Meanwhile, those who rated Foster's performance as poor or "not so good" nearly doubled, from 11 percent to 20 percent.
"He hasn't won me over," said Maxine Nelson, a 68-year-old Harbor Isle resident who supported his 2009 opponent, Kathleen Ford. She described herself as unsure about him last year, but said she's no longer on the fence.
"He hasn't accomplished much," said Nelson, who criticized his handling of the homeless issue and the Tampa Bay Rays.
The poll was conducted Dec. 3-8 by Braun Research, a national polling firm in Princeton, N.J., that interviewed 303 residents by phone. It has a margin of error of 5.6 percent.
Residents were asked to evaluate Foster's handling of four major issues facing his administration: crime, homelessness, the Rays and the Pier.
He scored highest on crime: 67 percent were satisfied with the city's lower crime rate, up 6 points from last year's poll. Residents were more divided in the other categories, including the homeless issue, which this time last year posed perhaps Foster's No. 1 political problem.
In January, as downtown's homeless population grew, Foster led the effort to open a new shelter called Pinellas Safe Harbor, which provides space for about 450 people and allows the city to enforce ordinances aimed at arresting people for sleeping on city streets, sidewalks and in parks.
Foster said the shelter is a sensitive approach because it provides homeless people with a bed, warm food and showers while providing access to jobs, counseling or other help. After it opened, downtown's population of street people dropped to nearly zero.
"I support how he's dealt with the homeless 1,000 percent," said Gail Hebert, a 69-year-old Disston Heights resident. "The areas where they used to sleep and gather look better now, and I feel safer."
Yet support of Foster's handling of the homeless actually dropped slightly from 51 percent to 48 percent. And 39 percent of residents said they were "not too satisfied," up 6 percent from last year and more than any other issue.
"Just because they want to sleep on a park bench or sleep in a park doesn't mean they're causing problems," said Jill Fong, 50. "People's individual rights don't matter anymore."
Foster said he was surprised not to see more of an increase of support in this category.
"In 2010, I had 200 people sleeping in downtown, now I don't have any," he said. Making sure the shelter remains open, and broadening services specifically to help women and children are chief aims for him in 2012, Foster said.
Residents were more divided this year on Foster's handling of the Rays. Foster continued to refuse to allow the team out of its contract at Tropicana Field if it intended to consider new stadium sites outside Pinellas County. The Rays have refused to talk with the city unless the team can consider other locations, such as downtown Tampa.
"I really like him standing up to the owners," Marshall said.
That was pretty much the sentiment last year. But those unsatisfied with Foster's approach grew by 6 percent.
Blame a confusing couple of months this summer in which City Council members criticized Foster for not having more of a strategy. During an August meeting, he said he had a plan, but wouldn't disclose it publicly, causing some council members to scoff that he was bluffing.
"His outlandish claim that he had a secret plan was a disaster," said Bill Williams, 19, a computer programmer who lives downtown. "There's been a massive breakdown of communication on the Rays issue."
Foster still said that it was all a misunderstanding and that he does have a strategy to work more closely with the Rays, adding he will try to bring "clarity" to the issue in the coming months.
Foster said he's optimistic about 2012 and the direction his administration is headed. He says he now has the staff he wants and expects this year's budget deficit to be well below the $10 million to $12 million he's had to accommodate so far.
Foster still has substantial ground to cover to reach the level of support his predecessor had.
In June 2009, 57 percent of residents gave Rick Baker excellent or good marks. Overall, 84 percent said Baker was doing an average or better job in his last year in office.
"I'm still growing as mayor," Foster said. "I'm not satisfied. Everything we've done in the last two years is a good start."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.