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St. Petersburg mayor's meeting with residents was refreshing

Jessica Schroeder, left, and Taylor Ibarguen, both 15-year-old Boyd Hill volunteers, attended Mayor’s Night Out on Thursday evening.

LARA CERRI | Times

Jessica Schroeder, left, and Taylor Ibarguen, both 15-year-old Boyd Hill volunteers, attended Mayor’s Night Out on Thursday evening.

It's a new day in St. Petersburg.

Or so it seemed Thursday evening at Mayor Bill Foster's first Mayor's Night Out event at the J. W. Cate Center.

No, I'm not talking about the 70 or so residents who showed up in force to complain about the replacement of five rangers at the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. More on that later.

What was new and refreshing was the opportunity to talk to city officials on a host of issues — under one roof. Representatives were there to address residents' concerns about neighborhoods, codes, police and fire departments and the business assistance center. The IT department was on hand to help folks navigate the city's Web site and pay fines or bills online.

The mayor was available for one-on-one chats as well, but unless you were one of the first 10 residents in line, you had to wait until after his session with the Boyd Hill group.

It didn't take long for that group to get his undivided attention. Foster was barely in the building before Jessica Schroeder, 15, and friend Taylor Ibarguen, 15, approached holding colorful signs that read: "Save Boyd Hill Rangers.''

"I want to keep the park with the rangers in them because I've learned so much there," said Jessica, who is a volunteer at the preserve.

Since the announcement there had been more than 250 e-mails and phone calls to City Hall to complain about the mayor's move.

City staff and Foster were quick to point out that the rangers weren't fired, but reassigned, including one ranger who received a promotion.

Foster took a refreshing step forward in addressing those residents, while correcting some of the misinformation that surrounded the move.

"I screwed up," Foster offered when questioned about the process. But he was quick to add that with a $14 million deficit, there will be more hard decisions.

The next Mayor's Night Out is at 7 p.m. March 11 at Sawgrass Lake Elementary School at 1815 77th Ave. N.

• • •

The winds of change were also blowing as a host of St. Petersburg residents headed north Friday to address the St. Petersburg College board of trustees in Largo.

Their main complaint: the process used in choosing the four finalists for college president was tainted. Most wanted a do-over.

It quickly became clear that some in the audience resented the power play. The person who summed it up best was Robin Jensen, an associate professor in communications at the college's Clearwater campus.

"We have community members that have gotten up here and spoken and said this whole process was tainted,'' she said. "They were not in this room throughout the whole entire process."

Those people, she said, "came out of the woodwork" because former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker wasn't one of the four finalists.

"I think we need to respect the process that was put into place. That is the right thing to do here," said Jensen. "I also want you to consider this: We represent the entire county of Pinellas, not just St. Petersburg, the city."

After listening to public comments, several trustees addressed the tainted process claim before closing comments from trustees chairman Terrence Brett, who summed it up by saying, "... this is not about Rick Baker. This is about the rules."

In the end, the board voted 5-0 to accept the four finalists chosen earlier.

• • •

Every so often, the City Council asks whether it should do something new with its Weeki Wachee Fund, a pot of money reserved for recreation funding. Should the money be used for the arts instead? Should it be invested differently?

As in the past, the council decided last week to keep things the way they are.

The fund has $14.4 million earned from the sale of a 440-acre recreation area in Hernando County in 2001, plus interest.

The council will decide whether to form a subcommittee to discuss funding for local arts.

Times staff writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report. Sandra J. Gadsden is editor of Neighborhood Times. She can be reached at (727) 893-8874 or sgadsden@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg mayor's meeting with residents was refreshing 02/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 12, 2010 6:16pm]

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