Bill Foster was a jokester on City Council — but not everyone found him funny

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council was paralyzed with indecision over a parking meter plan.

Council member Jay Lasita had questions, but his colleagues kept interrupting him during that seemingly endless meeting in 1998.

Amid the squabbling, council member Bill Foster kept calling out, "Keep it simple, stupid."

That's just how Foster was, said Lasita, who served on council from 1997 to 2006.

"Sometimes it bothered me," said Lasita, who was often teased by Foster. "But there were times I would laugh at it. It got me off my high horse."

During his nine years on council, Foster, 46, often tried to inject levity into the group's work, but he also crossed the line with some.

It's not a perfect fit with the image Foster projects on the campaign trail, where the mayoral candidate touts his sunny persona and ability to listen.

And why not? Rival Kathleen Ford, 52, has been portrayed as divisive, petulant and abusive by critics who frequently butted heads with her during her council term.

But the friendly and lighthearted Foster now celebrated by current and former elected officials wasn't always well-liked at City Hall.

Foster's mostly unblemished tenure was punctuated by bouts of fraternity-style high jinks, incendiary commentary and political grandstanding rarely spoken of in the election's ongoing debate over temperament.

• • •

By most accounts, Foster, a lawyer, was a charming legislator who used affection or sarcasm to defuse tension.

"I love you, man," he told then-council member Larry Williams during a disagreement over whether the City Council should hold a referendum on the purchase of Sunken Gardens. Foster supported the plan. Williams didn't.

Foster swiped fellow council member Rick Kriseman's sandwiches from a communal refrigerator and hid his suit jacket minutes before meetings.

"People don't often see that side of him, but he was very funny," said Kriseman, now a state House legislator. "None of it was meant in an ill will fashion."

In a recent interview, Foster said he remembers taking Kriseman's sandwich once because he mistook it for his lunch.

"I always took the job very seriously because we made life changing decisions, but at the appropriate time, when I thought we needed a minute to breathe, I did something," Foster said.

In at least one instance, the jokes may have gotten out of a hand.

One year, Kriseman gifted Foster a Krispy Kreme calender that featured obese women in a nod to Foster's preference for the sugary treats.

Foster thought it was hilarious. At least two council members said he passed the calender around City Hall, prompting a complaint.

As a result, council members had to attend one-on-one lectures on appropriate workplace behavior, said city attorney John Wolfe.

Foster, however, disputed that he showed the calender around. "That's not true," he said.

That wasn't the only time Foster was deemed insensitive.

Though usually curious and respectful of others' religious beliefs, he was steadfast in his own.

Kriseman once asked him to stop evoking the name of Jesus Christ during his invocations before council meetings.

Foster refused.

Kriseman, who is Jewish, would tell Foster the invocations needed to more inclusive.

"Bill would say, 'I can't pray unless I am praying in Jesus' name because that's my lord and savior,' " Kriseman said.

• • •

During his time on the council, Foster accomplished much.

He found money to support a public jai alai court, pushed the city to fight for more money for its sale of recreation lands near Weeki Wachee Springs, and led the effort to arrest a notorious Childs Park drug dealer.

"I know he cares about this city," said former council member Earnest Williams, a Foster supporter. "He is a nuts and bolts guy."

However, some colleagues dubbed him "Bill Posture" for his revolving opinions.

"He tested the winds of public opinion," said council member Herb Polson.

One year, Foster vowed to direct city spending toward public safety.

"Not everyone uses libraries or ports or rec centers," he said at the time.

A few years later, while lamenting cuts to arts groups, said the city needs to fund more than just essentials.

Foster also was inconsistent on homeless issues.

He opposed Mayor Rick Baker's efforts to toughen ordinances targeting the homeless and close a tent encampment in 2007.

"If we can't do better, we need to leave them alone," he said at the time.

Months later, he submitted a letter to the St. Petersburg Times that put homeless people on alert.

"I have a real hard time feeling sorry for those who choose to live on the street. Those are the ones who refuse assistance by the city and other agencies because the assistance comes with strings," he wrote.

Foster said his opinions sometimes changed because of public testimony.

• • •

Foster's even temper was occasionally peppered with inflammatory prose.

He likened drug-related crime to "terrorism" in a letter to the Times in 2002.

As city and county leaders feuded over a proposed gas tax increase in 2006, he fired off an angry letter accusing the Pinellas County Commission of trying to strong-arm the city.

"I will not be extorted, nor will I allow myself to make this decision because there is a 'goodwill' score to settle," Foster wrote. "I will also not consider the veiled threats that future requests by the city will be summarily dismissed because — Game Over."

County commissioners also remember his strident tone during a 2007 dispute over cities' annexation powers.

His infrequent outbursts continued after he was term-limited.

In a now infamous 2008 letter urging the School Board to expose students to other origin theories, he claimed Charles Darwin's theory of evolution helped fuel the rise of Adolf Hitler and contributed to the Columbine High shootings.

• • •

For all his teasing, Foster himself was an easy target in a more serious controversy.

Foster's colleagues said he loved the spotlight. He was quoted frequently in news and television stories.

"He prided himself in having all the media's phone numbers in his cell phone," Polson said.

Then came Council Chairman John Bryan's suicide in 2007.

City officials collectively agreed to stave off the media frenzy as long as possible out of deference for Bryan's family.

Hours later, they found a gaggle of television reporters in Bryan's office inspecting photos of his teenage daughters.

Foster said he doesn't know how the reporters got into Bryan's office. But at least four council members blamed Foster, Bryan's longtime political foe.

"That's a rumor that is so offensive," Foster said recently. "I never would have done that."

Some council members briefly stopped speaking to Foster.

"It was tough enough that the man had committed suicide, then the idea of allowing someone access in there because you could," Polson said. "It was just not seen as being very respectful."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

More on the race

Read more about the candidates and their positions at elections.tampabay.com.

Bill Foster was a jokester on City Council — but not everyone found him funny 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 1:30am]

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