ST. PETERSBURG — Challenger Rick Kriseman criticized Mayor Bill Foster at a debate Wednesday night regarding the mayor's announcement earlier this week that he had new plans to assist Midtown.
Foster has taken some heat from community leaders who say he has let Midtown slip off his priority list. Foster on Monday announced a number of plans to assist Midtown. Kriseman criticized Foster for making the announcement just two weeks before the election.
Kriseman said he spoke with some members of the City Council who were taken aback by the news and told Kriseman they felt "left in the dark."
The debate Wednesday, hosted by the Council of Neighborhood Associations, was the last public debate between the candidates. It drew about 50 people.
Both candidates seemed lethargic and tired of debating.
After nearly two hours of talking about city issues, when it came time for Foster and Kriseman to zing each other with their own questions, Kriseman leaned forward in his chair and said, "You know, Mayor Foster and I have debated, oh, I don't know, about 20 or 30 times."
"More than that," Foster interjected.
"And we have asked each other a ton of questions already … and I'm just going to make a statement: It's been an honor for me to be running for this and to participate in these debates with Mr. Foster."
And the debate ended.
Before that, the two answered questions that have appeared throughout the campaign about the Pier, the local economy, community policing and how to increase the city's communication with neighborhoods.
At one point Michael Adekunle, of the Pinellas County Urban League, asked Foster: "What would you attribute your lack of support from the City Council on?"
"I love that question," Foster responded.
He went on to say that over the past four years the city has had declining revenue and that he has been forced, due to the slouching economy, to become a "No Man." He started talking about dropping property tax figures until he at last asked: "Ask the question again, I lost it."
The most contentious issues of the evening, however, focused on Midtown and the relationship between the black community and police.
Foster's new plans didn't go over well with some CONA leaders.
Lisa Wheeler-Brown is a neighborhood leader for the Wildwood Heights area. She said a citizen panel Foster says he wants to create to examine public safety issues is something CONA has repeatedly met with him to talk about for the past year. Nothing resulted except a lot of head nodding, she said.
"Why not use CONA" instead of a new panel, Wheeler-Brown asked. "We know what the neighborhoods want."
She said Midtown is most concerned about public safety and likes Kriseman's plans on community policing.
She said the people in her neighborhood feel as if they only see officers policing the area when they arrive to arrest someone. "How are we going to build a relationship?" she asked.
Winnie Foster, a local activist, said she was aghast at Foster's answer about how he would create economic growth for historically poor areas in the city. He cited education — but named nothing specific — and creating jobs, and as an example mentioned the recent opening of a Walmart.
Kriseman said he would like to see a stronger emphasis on education in these poorer communities, and followed it with the slogan "education, not incarceration," which also won him his first applause.