Thursday, May 24, 2018
Politics

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster touts record as he eyes election

ST. PETERSBURG — For the next eight months, Mayor Bill Foster's agenda is packed.

On the to-do list: Build a new police headquarters. Shepherd the controversial plan to demolish and replace the Pier. Prepare a new budget. Referee a battle between downtown residents and clubs over noise regulations.

Oh, and then there's his political future. It's an election year, and Foster's fate is at stake in the August primary.

Challengers are expected to emerge soon, but Foster says voters should give him another four years.

"During very stressful economic times, things got done at a very high level," Foster said in a recent interview. "I have a record to run on. I own it."

But Foster concedes his administration hasn't been defined by shaping the downtown skyline or brokering deals with corporations to create jobs.

Instead, Foster says, he worked to keep services flowing after the Great Recession decimated city coffers by $30 million a year.

His upcoming campaign will focus on how he has improved customer service, cut crime rates and curbed the homeless problem.

Residents shouldn't expect a stump speech filled with grand visions for Florida's fourth-largest city.

"When it comes to city services, are you better off today than you were four years ago?" Foster says.

• • •

He did follow through on some 2009 campaign promises.

The controversial police chase policy was relaxed and red light cameras were installed. He also kept his pledge to hold morning and evening meetings with residents.

The lawyer and former council member points to other accomplishments:

• Stopping homeless people from sleeping in parks by working with county officials to open Pinellas Safe Harbor.

• Making top staffers meet with residents at Mayor's Night Out events and trimming 70 managers and supervisors from the payroll. As a result, five departments, including the clerk and auditor, report directly to Foster. Former mayors, he said, didn't have that responsibility.

• Aggressively recruiting international baseball teams to play games at Al Lang Field and streamlining paperwork so residents and contractors seek permits online.

Not everyone is wooed.

Foster hasn't tackled issues to propel the city to another level, said council chairman Karl Nurse.

He described Foster as "low key with a steady-as-he-goes-agenda." Nurse had a hard time naming a misstep since Foster hasn't pushed many transformative issues.

Nurse faulted Foster for not lobbying council members as former Mayor Rick Baker did to push an agenda.

"That's such a powerful tool, and seldom does Foster do that," Nurse said.

Chris Steinocher, head of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said members are generally pleased with Foster.

The city, Steinocher said, hasn't moved backwards and will continue to grow under Foster.

"The more he can inspire us to think about the future, the better off we'll be," he said.

• • •

Foster has had missteps:

• Without public input, he eliminated Boyd Hill Nature Preserve rangers and was confronted by angry residents who dominated one of his Mayor's Night Out events.

• Backlash forced him to rethink plans to close four city pools, one in a historic African-American area.

• In 2012, he proposed a so-called fire readiness fee to raise nearly $10 million to balance the budget. Residents derided the plan, and the City Council instead raised property taxes.

Council member Wengay Newton said Foster's three years have been all about backtracking.

He compared Foster's leadership to a "fish flopping on hot cement."

He pointed to March 2011 when Foster fired Goliath Davis, the city's most influential African-American who served as police chief, deputy mayor and senior administrator of community enrichment. He was perceived as City Hall's unofficial liaison to the black community.

"It alienated a lot of people in the African-American community," Newton said.

A week later, Foster met with pastors from churches with African-American congregations, which Newton said was perceived as part of a series of "knee-jerk reactions."

Foster disagreed.

"Now there is no middle man," he said. "That community can come to me."

• • •

A dry-erase board near Foster's desk details more than a dozen priorities for 2013.

They include getting Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food Restaurant into the Manhattan Casino, further reducing the homeless population and cutting more red tape when residents seek services.

He also hopes to remove blight from troubled neighborhoods and better market the city to attract new residents and economic development.

A major challenge will likely come when budget workshops start in April.

Foster says he needs to find money for workers who haven't had raises in four years. A pay hike could help him when workers and their families cast ballots.

The budget impacts how workers deliver services, Foster stressed, adding: "Pep talks are no replacement for compensation."

Foster admits he carries the stigma of being seen as a city manager rather than a political leader.

He doesn't seek the media spotlight or give "State of the City" speeches and rarely holds news conferences. That wont change if he gets a second term.

"I wanted to be the greatest mayor you never had to know," said Foster, who was rejected as city manager in 1992. "My style is building a team."

That may be his style, but Foster has recruited few top staffers to City Hall. Most have worked in the building for decades.

When asked why he is so low key in public, Foster unhooked his phone from his waist to read a quote from former President Ronald Reagan:

"There's no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit."

He added: "I like that."

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

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