Thursday, April 26, 2018
Politics

Examining St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's 2009 campaign promises

ST. PETERSBURG — The dry erase boards sit close to Mayor Bill Foster's desk on the second floor of City Hall.

They list priorities such as budget, police, homeless, customer services and economic development. Some have red arrows, others are circled in green. Nearby flow charts compare the city's bureaucracy from 2008 to 2013.

The boards highlight the argument Foster makes when telling voters why he deserves a second term: Residents receive more services now from a leaner bureaucracy, even after the Great Recession trimmed $35 million from tax rolls.

"He did this under tough circumstances," said Bill Dudley, the only council member to endorse Foster for a second term. "He maintained a quality of life for residents."

Foster has urged voters to judge his record. Adversaries have countered that he hasn't moved the city forward, merely maintained the status quo.

When seeking office in 2009, Foster didn't tout a grand vision to alter Florida's fourth-largest city. Instead, he unveiled the Foster 40 — his ideas on education, public safety, economic development and open government.

Foster says he has accomplished 35 of his promised 40. A Tampa Bay Times analysis put that tally slightly lower, at 32.

Foster followed through with most of his promises, such as his pledge to relax the controversial police chase policy, installing red-light cameras and attacking the homeless and panhandling problems plaguing downtown. Raises for employees came last month.

But he didn't develop a police substation in the downtown area or a volunteer support service for the Fire Department. The City Council also rejected his attempt to find corporate sponsors for parks and recreation centers.

Other pledges are still in the planning stages, such as modifying purchasing policies to help local businesses, which is under review by lawyers and requires council approval.

Other initiatives have not officially started or fizzled since Foster started them.

"I'm frustrated with his lack of vision," said council member Jeff Danner. "There is no plan for economic development or a plan for vacant houses. Crime rates still aren't that great."

Here is an overview of some key points of Foster's four years in office:

Off the charts

Two of the city's biggest problems — the stadium stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays and a plan for a new pier — were not on Foster's list but have consumed much of his first term nonetheless.

Many residents are frustrated that the future of the pier and baseball are so unclear.

"There are no easy fixes," Foster said. "I have a plan going forward with the pier and didn't expect a referendum (to stop the Lens). As for the Rays, we'll still be sitting at the table with our partners."

Public safety

• Foster relaxed the police pursuit policy one month after taking office over the objections of Police Chief Chuck Harmon. The police union had complained that old policy was too restrictive and emboldened criminals to flee. The change, heralded initially, has recently elicited a backlash from residents who describe some cops as reckless cowboys on the streets. Foster has now appointed a panel to revisit the chase policy, red-light cameras and other public safety issues.

• Foster promised to form more partnerships with other agencies, and residents saw that most in his collaboration with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Foster worked with then Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri to open the Pinellas Safe Harbor homeless shelter.

• Foster pledged to crack down on crime and put up security cameras in neighborhood hot spots known for drug dealing. Budget cuts initially derailed the cameras, but now thanks to grant money from the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, 29 cameras watch over streets and special events. Another five are in the planning stages.

Resident Steve Mcleod praised Foster for the way police officers have worked to rid drug dealers and prostitutes from 34th Street. "People are quick to say what is wrong with the current administration," he said, "but few take the time or have the inclination to say what is right. The fact is that Mayor Foster does listen to the people."

• Foster's campaign website touts a program he created to provide cash rewards for neighborhood associations and their youth partners. He also says he meets every quarter with leadership from the Council of Neighborhood Associations.

That money doesn't appear to be coming anymore.

"We had nothing last year," said CONA president Kurt Donley. "He cut it. He never came and told us. We learned about it from the media."

Savings

• Foster stresses he is a "good fiscal steward." After taking office, he consolidated several departments and trimmed 200 employees, including 70 managers and supervisors, from the payroll.

• When it comes to budgets, Foster promised to analyze every line of the nearly $500 million budget. His calendar shows he meets weekly with officials to discuss line items during budget season.

Communication

• A budget can't be set without gleaning what programs are important to residents, Foster said. He developed budget summits to hear residents' ideas at three meetings before a final budget is presented to council. The meetings are popular with residents, unions and activists.

• Foster started Mayor's Night Out and Breakfast with the Mayor events in February 2010 to make small, personal connections with residents. Department heads also attend.

• Foster promised to better promote local events with city, county and tourist agencies. But under his leadership, as a result of cuts, the city's advertising budget dropped from about $92,000 in 2005 to $20,000 this year.

Critics, including consultants hired to study the waterfront, also have accused the city's communication department of not doing enough to promote the city outside the region.

• Foster's promise to improve communication with the City Council fell way short. Members say he doesn't keep them informed, and six of the eight members support Kriseman's bid for mayor.

"It's horrible," Danner said. "In the last four years, he's been in my office four or five times. He must not have anything to talk about."

Foster disagrees.

"I could always count to five," he said. "Communication was great between those I could trust with information. I was able to build consensus with those pulling the rope in the same direction. For those who were self-serving, not so much."

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @ markpuente.

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