ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor-elect Bill Foster has a law office stacked with congratulatory flowers and chocolates, but not yet the keys to City Hall.
As the first St. Petersburg mayor in recent history with a prolonged transition period between his election and inauguration, he'll be caught in limbo between both worlds for the next two months.
He'll balance retiring his longtime legal practice — bidding clients farewell, finishing up paperwork, helping his father and legal partner decide whether to close the family practice — with learning how to be the mayor of Florida's fourth-largest city.
"There are a lot of things I intend to address, but right now, the priority is getting through the transition," he said. "The task this (past) week was Tuesday, getting through Tuesday. I never looked ahead."
Where's the office?
For at least half a century, St. Petersburg mayors took office only days after they were elected.
After Mayor Rick Baker's election in 2001, the city charter was changed to allow future mayors a preparatory period before taking office. Baker was re-elected in 2005, eliminating an opportunity to test the new system.
It now falls to Foster, 46, to set the political precedent.
Will he get an office in City Hall? Should city officials appoint a transition liaison? Will he bring in his campaign staff to help out?
"The charter says nothing about it," said City Attorney John Wolfe.
Deputy Mayor Tish Elston said her staff will accommodate Foster as best it can.
"We haven't quite finalized that," she said. "It really depends on how he sees things going."
City Hall has given Foster a vacant 1,100-square-foot wing on the mezzanine level of the Municipal Services Center on Central Avenue.
That's nice, said Foster, but he would prefer a corner in City Hall.
"It's closer to most of the people I'll be working with on transition," Foster said. "Even if it is in the basement, near the vending machines."
Unlike Baker, who had never held political office when he was elected, Foster should be a quick study.
He was a City Council member from 1999 to 2008, during which he enjoyed two stints as council chairman, a position that calls for a close relationship with the mayor and top administrators.
Still, Foster said he is glad he won't take office until Jan. 2.
"It's not like the need for essential services stop. Everything needs to still happen and go on, so I need to be prepared," he said.
Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who took office a month after he was elected in March 1995, said transition periods are useful.
"It gives you time to sort out who you want to work with and that sort of thing," he said. "If you just did it the next day or the next week, you've got a month of catching up to do."
What will change?
As a mayoral candidate, Foster set out an ambitious platform that could come back to haunt him.
He intends to replace the city's budget system with a time-intensive process he calls service-level budgeting. It essentially will require city department managers to defend their expenses in biannual meetings.
"There are things out there that I know the city can ill afford to fund anymore," he said. He declined to name specific programs he hopes to cut.
He will need to tend to looming issues Baker will not be able to solve in the next two months, like the revitalization of BayWalk and a community group's report on a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Foster said he will read the ABC Coalition's report, but it will be up to the Rays to initiate discussions about a new stadium.
"I'm not going to act on the report," he said. "Nor is their time line the time line I'll be working with."
He also has vowed to reach out to his former opponent, Kathleen Ford, and her support base.
That could prove difficult given that Ford's campaign centered largely on political reform. Conversely, Foster has promised steady progress.
Ford predicted there would be few substantial changes under Foster's administration.
"It is basically going to be status quo," she said. "It will require some energy and initiatives to make changes. I haven't seen those personality traits from Mr. Get-Along-Bill."
Foster said he will also work closely with police Chief Chuck Harmon to implement his multipronged public safety plan. Among his ideas? Relax the city's no-chase policy to give officers more power to chase fleeing suspects.
Harmon has called the plan dangerous and unnecessary. He's also questioned Foster's plan to install security cameras throughout the city.
Foster said he could meet with Harmon as early as this week.
"My level of ego is not such that I can't be talked out of anything," Foster said. "But he understands the direction I want to go in."
He'll also spend time with council members to develop a shared strategy for city progress.
"He won't be a stranger," said City Council Chairman Jeff Danner, who endorsed Foster in the election and worked with him on the City Council. "He knows what it takes to get his agenda through."
However, staff members who breathed a sign of relief when Foster came out on top may not be so safe after all.
Foster said he will meet with city leaders in upcoming weeks to evaluate which staffers he will keep.
And one of his first acts as mayor will be to follow through on his campaign promise to eliminate all three deputy mayor positions, titles he thinks are confusing. Those high-paid administrators will likely be given new jobs, he added.
"It's just a title," he said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.