TAMPA — Questions about parks and police dominated Mayor Bob Buckhorn's town hall meeting — the first of his administration — in East Tampa.
Buckhorn went to the Ragan Park Community Center on July 21 at the invitation of the East Tampa Business and Civic Association, but he didn't go alone.
The mayor took along a lot of City Hall brass, including the police and fire chiefs, his chief of staff and top officials from public works, finance, parks and recreation, water, solid waste, purchasing and community relations.
During a two-hour question-and-answer session, Buckhorn got about 15 questions about the city's parks department, including whether it can offer more programs for teenagers and why some facilities don't have more staffing.
Buckhorn said he plans over the next five years to steer community investment tax revenues to a variety of neighborhood improvement projects, including park improvements, and said he recognizes the value of recreation programs for young people.
Next to police and fire, parks and recreation may account for the city's largest personnel cost, Buckhorn said. He said it's important that young people have good parks and recreation programs so they don't end up hanging around on street corners and getting into trouble.
"To me, that's not an acceptable trade-off," Buckhorn told the crowd of more than 100. "You have that commitment from me that we will do the best that we can within our resources to make sure that our park system is alive and it's well and it's vibrant and it's engaged. But we do have economic restraints."
Parks and recreation director Karen Palus said employees have worked hard to keep facilities open and promised they would be responsive to residents' concerns.
"If there's a specific request or anything that needs to be handled, we're happy to sit down with individuals directly and make sure we're accommodating that," she said.
Police-related questions included whether the city's 60 percent decline in crime has come through the use of racial profiling, illegal searches and at the expense of black youth.
Police Chief Jane Castor responded that she believes that Tampa's police are among the best in the nation, largely because the department is picky in its hiring, accepting a small percentage of applicants, and expects them to act professionally.
"When we make a mistake in our department, we stand up and admit that," she said. "Our officers also understand that we have very high standards and that everybody is to be treated with a level of respect regardless of their position in society, in our community, in life in general."
Buckhorn said he had been around long enough to remember when police relations with the community were not as good.
"It's come a mighty long way, but it's a daily process," he said. "It is a day-to-day, relationship-by-relationship, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, officer-by-citizen process. We can't ever stop doing that."
Although the meeting was Buckhorn's first town hall gathering since becoming mayor, he said it won't be his last.
"We're going to make a practice of this, because I believe in taking City Hall out to the community," he said. As a City Council member, he would occasionally load a desk on the back of a truck and set it up on someone's front yard to meet with constituents. "I just have a bigger desk now."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.