Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

Outgoing St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster reflects on his tenure

ST. PETERSBURG — For the past four years on the second floor of City Hall, Mayor Bill Foster had looked over his shoulder at dry erase boards. The green circles and red arrows highlighted initiatives, goals and priorities.

The boards now sit empty behind a door. With the swipe of an eraser, the outgoing mayor wiped away plans he wanted to finish in the next four years. But voters didn't let him.

"I have the four-year plan right here," Foster said laughing and holding up the eraser. "Somewhere in this dry eraser is my vision for St. Petersburg. It was pretty hard to erase all that."

His last full day in office is Wednesday. Rick Kriseman takes an oath the next day to lead the city.

With his office nearly empty of personal items, Foster said he hasn't pondered his defeat. For a man who grew up dreaming of leading the city, Foster shows no signs of bitterness.

He frequently cracked jokes in an interview and stressed that he has no regrets. He worries most about the employees left behind.

"The hardest thing has been saying goodbye to a lot of really good people," he said, wearing jeans and a golf shirt. "We have a good team. I was fortunate to be the head coach for the last four years."

• • •

With incumbents typically hard to beat, most residents expected Foster to keep his job. He guided the city through the Great Recession, keeping most services intact. He considers that his greatest accomplishment. Early in his first year, Foster won accolades for moving large numbers of panhandlers and homeless people from downtown streets.

But his time in office had rocky patches, too. Last year, he caused ire when he tried plugging a $10 million shortfall by assessing a so-called fire fee on every property owner. The City Council rejected the idea and raised property taxes. At the same time, Foster moved forward with plans to replace the inverted pyramid Pier with the project known as the Lens but never managed to fully sell it to residents. Critics, who circulated petitions to halt the $50 million project, prevailed in a referendum on the November ballot.

Foster couldn't overcome another problem in the campaign: Seven out of 10 voters thought the city was headed in the right direction, according to one poll, but they didn't credit him for the success.

Still, he felt confident on Election Day — until results from absentee ballots posted online. Reality took over.

"I was prepared that night to give the greatest victory speech in my life," Foster said. "In the matter of 30 minutes, I had to acknowledge my future was uncertain."

Kriseman defeated Foster 56 percent to 44 percent.

As a two-term council member, Foster said he often heard former Mayor Rick Baker talk about more controversial initiatives as "second-term projects." Now, Foster said, he knows what Baker meant.

Looking back, Foster joked that he should have delayed the Lens until after the election.

"I might have made the decision too soon," Foster said, laughing. "I didn't make decisions on how it would impact my re-election."

After working 50 to 60 hours a week since 2010, Foster isn't taking a vacation.

On Jan. 6, the St. Petersburg native will go back to being a full-time lawyer. He will join a firm headed by a longtime friend in Vero Beach. Humiliation, he said, isn't pushing him away.

Guided by a strong faith, Foster said he looks forward to new challenges and being an empty nester with his wife, Wendy.

"God gave me the opportunity to do something else," he said. "The Lord gave me a big body check. There's a lot of relief in that."

• • •

Foster has high hopes for the city.

He believes Kriseman will build a new icon to replace the Pier. Reflecting on another decision, Foster said he is proud he protected taxpayers in the stadium stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays.

He hopes Kriseman does the same, saying: "If he handles this situation the way I did, the Rays will be here in five years. If he deviates, then I don't think they'll be south of the Mason-Dixon line."

Although Foster served on the council before he became mayor, he said his family wasn't prepared for repeated criticism he received as the city's leader. Attacks from residents and editorial boards were some of the hardest parts of the job, he added.

He believes it will also impact Kriseman's wife and two kids.

Meanwhile, based on experience, Foster said it will take Kriseman at least one year to learn the job.

"You think you know the city until you're the one sitting at the top," Foster sad. "That's a very lonely place. He'll drink from a fire hydrant for a while."

Kriseman, Foster said, will also learn that not all news is good news. The darkest days for Foster came when three police officers were fatally shot in the line of duty in early 2011.

"I would not wish that on anybody," he said. "We lost three really good guys. That will never leave me."

When Kriseman steps on a stage Thursday at City Hall to take over, Foster said he hopes the city's momentum continues. As his voice dropped, he had a final message for residents.

"St. Petersburg is in good shape. I'm confident that it's in good hands. The whole experience has been one of the greatest honors in my life. I gave it 100 percent."

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

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