ST. PETERSBURG — The Suncoast Tiger Bay Club mayoral forum started Wednesday with something that felt a lot like a roast of missing candidate Kathleen Ford.
An unknown person in a chicken suit interrupted moderator Greg Wilson's introduction in what is becoming a staple sideshow designed to taunt Ford for her absences. Wilson then pretended to take several calls from Ford, who has missed four debates.
When the chicken left the room and the candidates took the floor, the discussion shifted to a wide swath of issues affecting the city.
Mayor Bill Foster and Rick Kriseman, a former state representative and a former City Council member, traded jabs as their political differences began to emerge.
Foster, 50, is using the recession as an excuse for not moving the city forward, said Kriseman, also 50.
"If every year were an election year, I think we'd be in a lot better shape than we are," he said, taking aim at the new ideas the mayor has rolled out recently.
Foster retaliated, defending initiatives he has carried out during his administration.
"It's real easy to have perfect hindsight when you haven't been there," Foster said.
About 150 people packed the St. Petersburg Yacht Club ballroom, asking questions about everything from Midtown development and taxes to education and climate change.
On mass transit, Foster said he supports ongoing discussion about what shape it should take — whether it's light rail, a trolley or a revamped bus system. But he warned that the city has to be confident in its resources before taking on such a major project. He said he supports the Greenlight Pinellas campaign and the public's right to vote on a proposed 1-cent tax hike to overhaul public transit.
Kriseman's support was stronger.
"I'm going to take it a step further and ask all of you to please vote for this initiative," said Kriseman, adding that mass transit was key to a city's economic health.
He also said he believed the lack of transit downtown was a factor in the Tampa Bay Rays' struggle for attendance.
When the topic of Midtown and Foster's relationship with the black community came up, Foster defended his record but noted that the recession made it difficult to get the funds needed to fully revitalize the area.
Kriseman said the mayor dropped the ball.
"We haven't seen that growth in Midtown that Midtown deserves," he said. "We haven't seen the city spend its resources equally."
The debate was largely void of talk about one of the city's most hot-button issues, the proposed new Pier known as the Lens.
Pinellas School Board member Linda Lerner asked the candidates about Bill Edwards, whose mortgage company was hit with a $7.5 million fine for violating the "Do Not Call" telemarketing rule.
Edwards' other company, Big 3 Entertainment, manages the city-owned Mahaffey Theater.
Kriseman said it is the city's job to question the ethics of businesses that receive taxpayer money.
Foster defended Edwards, praising him for his philanthropy, as well as his commitment to the Mahaffey and his ongoing renovations to BayWalk. "I'm not going to stand here and bash someone who has given so much to the community," he said.
Lauren Carroll can be reached at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected]