St. Petersburg mayoral candidates debate baseball, crime

Kathleen Ford has the floor during the debate in St. Pete Beach. Bill Foster is at left, and Deveron Gibbons is at right.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Kathleen Ford has the floor during the debate in St. Pete Beach. Bill Foster is at left, and Deveron Gibbons is at right.

Kathleen Ford said the police chief was too soft on drugs.

She said the City Council failed to question the secrecy surrounding plans to build a baseball stadium at Al Lang Field. And she said that Mayor Rick Baker and his administration erred by investing tax dollars in risky securities lending.

In the city's first mayoral forum Thursday, Ford pulled no punches. The rhetoric was reminiscent of the style that won her both friends and enemies during her unsuccessful 2001 run for mayor.

"We elect the City Council and we elect the mayor to protect the city's purse," said Ford, 51, who served on the council from 1997 to 2001. "That frankly did not happen."

The two-hour forum, hosted by the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce at the TradeWinds Resort in St. Pete Beach, focused largely on crime and the Rays' pursuit of a new ballpark.

The event was the first of likely a dozen or more forums ahead of the Sept. 1 primary.

Replace the Trop?

Candidates varied on the need to replace Tropicana Field with a new ballpark.

Ford, a lawyer, was most outspoken in opposition, but said voters should ultimately decide. Larry Williams, another former council member and local business owner, was most supportive of a new stadium.

Former council member Bill Foster preferred that a new stadium be built on the site of Tropicana Field, surrounded by a new mixed-use development.

"It would be foolish not to do everything in the realm of reason to keep the team here," said Foster, 45, a lawyer. "It's not a matter of if the team would leave, it's when. Don't think the city of Las Vegas won't write a check and buy out" the Rays' contract.

Deveron Gibbons, a vice president of Amscot Financial and a member of the St. Petersburg College board of trustees, said any new stadium should be located in St. Petersburg.

Business executive Scott Wagman, 55, said only that a stadium, if built, should land somewhere in Pinellas County. "Under my watch, baseball will be somewhere in Pinellas County. It will not be in Tampa."

Alex Haak, the former mayor of Toms River, N.J., agreed with candidates that a stadium should not be built at Al Lang Field.

Three of the nine candidates running did not attend — Jamie Bennett, 56, who attended a City Council meeting, retired builder Paul Congemi, 52, and the Rev. Sharon Russ, 48.

Crime concerns

The recent shooting death of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton raised new questions about safety in the neighborhoods of Midtown.

Scott Swift, 43, who moved to Bartlett Park almost four years ago, asked candidates what they intend to do about crime.

"I get told crime is down. I get told we're doing the best we can," Swift said of the Baker administration. "What are you going to do?"

Gibbons, 36, gave his personal story. A third-generation city resident, he was "born, raised and bred right there in Bartlett Park," he said. He recalled witnessing the 1990 murder of 20-year-old Larry Waller, who was killed during a shootout at Seventh Street S and 20th Avenue S. "I was standing there," said Gibbons, who said police need to enforce the laws more aggressively.

Gibbons and Wagman pushed for increases in youth mentoring programs. Wagman also promised — without offering specifics — to get assault weapons out of the hands of children, and said city crime statistics "can be gamed."

Ford said she would pull together local, state and federal agencies while blaming Baker for letting gangs and drug dealers go unchecked. Baker and Harmon have "looked the other way" when it comes to drug dealing, she said.

Foster said he would relaunch the city's community policing efforts. Williams, 64, wanted to start an anonymous phone tip line. (The city already has one.)

Haak said the former council members "have lots of ideas now they forgot to implement while they were there."

"I'm not much of a talker," said Haak, 77, a political activist. "I believe more in action."

Times staff writer Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

A new baseball stadium? Where they stand:

Jamie Bennett: Prefers privately funded retractable roof stadium at Tropicana site.

Kathleen Ford: Enforce existing contract requiring team to play at Tropicana site through 2027. Any new stadium would require referendum.

Bill Foster: New stadium at Tropicana site. Team will leave if stadium isn't built.

Deveron Gibbons: New stadium in St. Petersburg, not on waterfront. Says Rays must make good-faith financial proposal.

Alex Haak: No new stadium on waterfront; discussion should be delayed for a few years.

Scott Wagman: Stadium should be built in Pinellas County, but not necessarily St. Petersburg. Opposes waterfront location.

Larry Williams: Stadium must be built to keep team here. Not opposed to public financing.

learn more

Miss the debate?

Read a live blog from the event at blogs.tampabay.com/baybuzz.

The next candidate forum is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday. The event, at the Studio@620 on First Avenue S, will focus on the arts community.

St. Petersburg mayoral candidates debate baseball, crime 04/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 3:23pm]

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