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No need to flex muscles to be a strong mayor for St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster’s managerial style has often emphasized his individual clout, but he has struggled to build a consensus on some of St. Petersburg’s biggest problems.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster’s managerial style has often emphasized his individual clout, but he has struggled to build a consensus on some of St. Petersburg’s biggest problems.

It was nearing the final days of the mayoral election, and the candidates were running hard toward the finish line.

Having just abruptly announced a new direction in his Midtown strategy, Mayor Bill Foster was asked why he hadn't told City Council members beforehand.

His essential reply:

Because I didn't have to.

If the learning curve for Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman seems daunting today, this might be as good a place as any for him to start.

Lesson No. 1:

The key to being a strong mayor is not demonstrating your individual clout. Rather, it is leading through your collective resources.

Regrettably, this has been a problem in St. Petersburg in recent years. The city has run smoothly enough, but it hasn't really gotten anywhere. The biggest decisions a new mayor faced in 2010 will still be the biggest issues another mayor faces in 2014.

Some might blame that on Foster's managerial style. Others will say the acrimonious relationship between council member Leslie Curran and Foster eventually poisoned everything within reach.

At this point, the specifics don't necessarily matter. The larger issue is that the bickering and posturing grew from a small distraction to an enormous roadblock.

The mayor didn't trust certain council members. The Rays didn't trust the mayor. The Pier supporters didn't believe their voices were being heard, and the rest of us were left wondering if it was Opie or Aunt Bee's turn to shut out the lights.

In his initial news conference as mayor-elect on Wednesday morning, Kriseman repeatedly pointed out that St. Pete is the fourth-largest city in Florida.

The inference, I assume, is that it is time to start behaving that way.

Kriseman suggested he might change the leadership structure at City Hall, perhaps creating a new deputy mayor or chief of staff position. He later left open the possibility that he might not regularly deal with the day-to-day workings of City Council meetings.

He vowed to surround himself with the smartest people he could find with the idea they would challenge his decisions instead of rubber-stamping them.

Later, I asked Kriseman his definition of a strong mayor.

"A strong mayor is like the CEO of a city,'' he said. "It's the mayor's job to push, lead, be a cheerleader, sell the city and bring business back here.

"A good CEO has all the best people he can find around him, starting with his board of directors, which in this case is the City Council. And the only way things are going to get done is if everyone is working together. It's the mayor's job to make sure that happens.''

Of course, that's easy to say when you're still 57 days away from taking office, when you don't have a baseball team trying to lowball you in negotiations, or concerned citizens flooding your mailbox with their selfish objectives.

In a lot of ways, Kriseman is standing in the same doorway Foster walked through four years ago. A hometown lawyer who spent years in a City Council seat and is now preparing to become boss of the city.

Foster didn't necessarily fail, but he struggled to build a consensus on some of St. Pete's biggest problems. If Kriseman takes nothing else from the last administration, he needs to understand that a mayor is strongest when people are willing to follow him.

No need to flex muscles to be a strong mayor for St. Petersburg 11/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 6, 2013 9:31pm]
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