ST PETERSBURG — Amid a fierce re-election fight, Mayor Bill Foster announced two initiatives Tuesday designed to tackle the most contentious issues in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Foster vowed to hire a high-level administrator to oversee economic development in the Midtown and Childs Park areas. He also pledged to form a citizen panel to examine public safety issues such as the controversial pursuit policy and tensions between the black community and police.
No City Hall administrator has overseen Midtown since Foster fired Goliath Davis, the former police chief and deputy mayor, in 2011.
Challenger Rick Kriseman has criticized Foster for not doing enough to continue the progress in Midtown started by former Mayor Rick Baker. African-American voters could swing the Nov. 5 election for either man.
While Foster said the moves aren't political, his critics questioned the timing. City Council members hadn't heard of the plan when reporters asked them about it on Tuesday.
Foster pegged the timing to the Pinellas County Commission's recent decision to move forward with plans to create a Community Redevelopment Area in Midtown, which eventually will allow the city to use area property tax revenues for capital projects there.
"I don't stop doing my job because it's a campaign year," he said Tuesday.
Council Chairman Karl Nurse said he isn't opposed to Foster's ideas, they're just unlike anything he has heard from the mayor in the past.
Nurse said he has been working with Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch for sometime on the Midtown redevelopment plan.
"It has become wholly apparent that the lack of someone who's totally focused on (Midtown) is a problem," Nurse said. "I'm glad that two weeks before the election the mayor figured that out."
Foster said he heard complaints from residents about Midtown on the campaign trail and vowed to seek an expert who can parlay housing, jobs and economic development into growth for the struggling area. He acknowledged he didn't budget for the new position, and expects to make mid-year adjustments to fund the job. He doesn't know if he will hire internally or look outside City Hall.
The announcement is a shift for Foster, who for more than two years has disagreed with criticism that he created a void by not filling Davis' position.
"Now there is no middle man," Foster told the Tampa Bay Times in January. "That community can come to me."
A community activist applauded Foster's announcement on Tuesday but said it will not win him votes.
"It's not even a game changer," said Jeff Copeland, who supported Foster in 2009. "It's campaign rhetoric. He's not doing it genuinely because someone needs to be in Midtown."
Foster's move Tuesday could win him the support of Baker, a fellow Republican who has yet to make an endorsement in the nonpartisan race. One of Baker's biggest issues with Foster has been how little attention he's paid to Midtown.
Kriseman, who called Foster's announcement a political stunt, has pledged throughout the election to hire a Midtown administrator.
"Mr. Foster waited nearly 1,000 days to appoint a new liaison to Midtown," he said. "Announcing this position two weeks before an election is offensive and nothing more than an act of desperation."
Businessman Scott Wagman and Watson Haynes, president of the Pinellas County Urban League, will head Foster's five-person public safety panel. Foster will appoint three residents to round out the panel next month.
The group will interview candidates for police chief and make recommendations on red light cameras and the pursuit policy. The panel will conduct public meetings to gather input.
Foster said he will make the final decision on the next chief.
Police Chief Chuck Harmon and fire Chief Jim Large both said they welcome public input.
Harmon, who is retiring in January, said the department has had a citizen advisory board for years; the city also has a citizen board that reviews police discipline decisions.
"I don't know what kind of role this new thing it going to play," said Harmon, who just learned of Foster's plan Tuesday morning. "I don't anticipate them making policy decisions."
Large said the panel could help get the public more engaged on fire issues, especially EMS funding.
Wagman said Foster has been talking to his inner circle for more than a month about the plans. Haynes said the mayor approached him about three weeks ago.
"I think it's a good move," Haynes said. "Goliath was effective because he focused on a community in need. . . . (Foster's) ability to say I think I want that to happen again is fine with me."
Residents need to know about Foster's plan before casting ballots, Wagman said, adding that critics also accuse Kriseman of not providing enough details about his plans for the city.
"When you're the mayor, you have to make specific decisions," he said. "Now is an excellent time to unveil initiatives."
Davis, who Foster fired in 2011, said it's too late.
"It's an obvious, insincere act of desperation," Davis said. "He's ignored Midtown for four years. The initiatives he's citing were all begun under a prior administration. It's insulting to the community to suggest that they can't read his motives two weeks prior to an election."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @ markpuente.