Saturday, May 26, 2018
Opinion

Nickens: St. Petersburg needs a real mayor

Bill Foster is St. Petersburg's weakest strong mayor.

Before city voters cast their ballots, they should pause and compare Foster to his two predecessors. The record shows he does not measure up in credibility or results.

David Fischer was well-suited to be the first strong mayor in modern times after voters changed the structure of city government 20 years ago. He did not make waves at City Hall, and his unassuming demeanor was comforting during the tumultuous 1990s that included racial disturbances, the arrival of Major League Baseball and the deal to build the BayWalk entertainment complex. Fischer refocused on the poor minority neighborhoods now known as Midtown, grew more neighborhood associations and left a legacy of thousands of trees planted along public rights of way.

If Fischer eased St. Petersburg into the strong mayor era, Rick Baker stepped on the gas when he was elected in 2001. He was a dealmaker with political connections, bringing to Midtown a full-service post office, grocery, library and financial institution. He picked the site and helped arrange state financing for the new Dalí Museum, negotiated a new home for St. Petersburg College, the Florida Orchestra and American Stage downtown and seemed to be everywhere at once. He increased the city's financial reserves, raised money and recruited volunteers for schools, and had his way with the City Council.

Now Foster asks voters to judge him on his record. In style and substance, he falls short of Fischer or Baker. He is essentially another City Council member with a better title, a mayor who has acknowledged he has no broad vision for the city. He has struggled to maintain the status quo, much less move St. Petersburg forward.

Foster has failed to lead on the big issues. He pushed to tear down the old Pier and build a new one, but he failed to persuade voters to follow him. Now the Pier is closed and there is no clear way forward.

Four years ago, Foster pledged to talk with the Tampa Bay Rays about a new stadium and predicted construction could be under way by 2016. Instead he hid behind the long-term lease for three years, then negotiated privately for a few months before breaking off talks. The Rays are four years closer to leaving, and the city has less leverage.

Redevelopment in Midtown? Stalled.

City efforts to help schools? Diminished.

Vibrancy of neighborhood associations? Declined.

Foster takes credit for trends over which the mayor has little control. Hundreds of apartments are under construction downtown, but that is driven by broad economic forces. The crime rate has declined, but that is a national trend. In fact, crime generally had been dropping in St. Petersburg before Foster took office.

As he did while on the City Council, Foster routinely gauges which way the wind is blowing and then rushes to the front. He gets credit for pushing panhandlers out, although the City Council was in full support. He helped establish the Safe Harbor homeless shelter, but the sheriff found space for it. He showed up at recent events promoting the Walmart grocery coming to Midtown, but philanthropist Bill Edwards' money made the deal work.

Foster had the unfortunate timing to be in office during the fallout from the Great Recession, and St. Petersburg survived without permanent harm. But his management of the city budget often was sloppy. Revenue was overestimated and some proposed job cuts never occurred, creating deficits that had to be covered with tax increases and reserves. He embraced a regressive fee for fire protection, and the council fortunately rejected it.

While other services and jobs were cut, Foster catered to unions for firefighters and police. He resisted efforts by the county to reduce costs of the EMS system, and he let police officers run up expenses for overtime and for driving patrol cars home, even out of the county. No wonder unions representing firefighters and police are endorsing him.

Beyond his lackluster record, the mayor has a reputation for not negotiating in good faith or being candid with the public. He did not build good relationships with the Rays, area public officials or the City Council. He misled voters about the Rays stadium negotiations, the costs of the Republican National Convention and warning signs that the Midtown grocery was in financial trouble before it closed.

There is no hint of corruption, no doubt about Foster's dedication to St. Petersburg and no suggestion he serves his self-interest. He is devoted to his family and his hometown, and he will pull over on the Howard Frankland Bridge to comfort a teenage driver after her accident.

The question before voters, though, is one of leadership.

David Fischer's low-key style reassured voters as St. Petersburg moved to a government led by a strong mayor with broad authority. Rick Baker demonstrated what can be accomplished when the job's powers are fully employed. Bill Foster has failed to effectively use those powers and diminished the office of mayor, and by extension St. Petersburg.

Foster asks voters to judge him on his record. In at least one respect, they already have. A Tampa Bay Times/BayNews 9 poll last month found more than 7 in 10 city voters believe St. Petersburg is headed in the right direction. Yet the mayor barely won the primary and is locked in a tight general election campaign.

There is a reason for that. St. Petersburg did not survive the recession, see construction cranes downtown again and remain a wonderful place to live because of the mayor. It did it in spite of him.

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