ST. PETERSBURG — They want safe streets and a place for their children to play.
Residents of the city's most economically depressed and historically oppressed neighborhoods demanded answers from mayoral candidates Bill Foster and Kathleen Ford on Monday night during an occasionally heated candidate forum focused on Midtown.
Ford and Foster have sparred on a buffet of city issues in recent weeks — a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, city spending, gay rights.
But the two white candidates both firmly pledged if elected to focus on juvenile crime prevention and aggressive law enforcement, including of minor crimes such as loitering and littering, to the roomful of mostly African-American residents.
Ford, 52, acknowledged the historically tense relationship between the black community and the criminal justice system.
"We have to work as partners," she said. "There is an awful history in this nation between law enforcement and African-Americans."
She vowed to bring diversity to all levels of the Police Department.
"My promise to you is we will have a Police Department that is reflective of all of us," she said.
Foster, 46, said he would require the Police Department to enact the broken window theory, an aggressive public safety philosophy that pairs civil code enforcement with crime enforcement. He will ask city employees out in the community to look for crime and report it.
Foster, a lawyer, said he had confidence in police Chief Chuck Harmon.
That doesn't necessarily mean Harmon's job is secure.
"I am about accountability and results," said Foster. "If I don't see the results, I will assure you we will be looking for somebody else. But I want him to have that opportunity."
Both candidates promised to create tutorial programs and recreation opportunities for students.
Foster said he would allow teenagers to design recreation programs and find business leaders to construct and manage them. The city will not oversee the program, he said. "Because if we do, it's not cool and no one will come," he said.
In many instances, the candidates expressed similar goals, but did not share the same enthusiasm.
Ford pledged to establish computer labs through the city and provide residents free Internet access in certain areas. "We can do it," she said. "We just need to figure out how."
Foster said he would consider free Internet access programs.
Ford, who recently asked the City Council to reinstitute funding to the summer youth jobs program without success, said she would restore the program as mayor.
City officials opted to apply again for federal funding instead, although those dollars did not arrive until late summer this year, allowing for a shorter and smaller program that left many teenagers without employment.
Foster said he will fund the program with city dollars if needed.
Ford pledged to track the city's spending in Midtown and record program expenses, deadlines and performance evaluations.
Foster said the city needs to do more to track its spending, but did not offer specifics.
"I can't stand here and say that there hasn't been a misuse of these dollars," he said. "Hopefully, that oversight is there."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.