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Tampa's public perception belly flop

Children at a summer camp program line up to get into the reopened Interbay Pool in South Tampa this month. Meanwhile, the Williams Park Pool in east Tampa remains closed.

LARA CERRI | Times

Children at a summer camp program line up to get into the reopened Interbay Pool in South Tampa this month. Meanwhile, the Williams Park Pool in east Tampa remains closed.

It's just a guess, but it's entirely possible Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has picked up the phone by now and suggested to one of his city factotums that even if it takes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bin Laden Construction Group and the Halliburton Corp. to get the job done, there better be some children of color swimming in the Williams Park Pool by … well, now, or there will be more heads rolling than the French Revolution.

All mayors come into office seeing themselves as the fixer of big-picture issues. And Buckhorn has been no different, tackling stuff like the city budget, pension complexities, preparing for the 2012 Republican Convention, making goo-goo eyes in the general direction of the Tampa Bay Rays and even traveling a bit to promote investment in Tampa.

It's all been very nice and has given hizzoner the chance to come off as mayoral. Now this.

Buckhorn is enough of a political beast to know it is the out-of-the-blue boo-boo, the unexpected, the seemingly minor problem that rises up and can take a huge bite out of a carefully crafted political image.

You probably heard the mayoral forehead slap that sounded like the space shuttle's sonic booms, as Buckhorn learned the city had reopened the refreshing public Interbay Pool in South Tampa while another city facility, the Williams Park Pool in east Tampa, remains closed.

Not good.

Fairly or not, it has long been axiomatic in the city's political life that the swells in South Tampa have enjoyed special treatment. Caviar and Dom Perignon for the folks south of Kennedy Boulevard, beef jerky and Mountain Dew for those unfortunate enough to have thrown their lot in with the peons north of the Palma Ceia line.

In this case, the optics couldn't be more problematic for the newbie mayor. While white children splash and frolic in the invigorating waters of the Interbay Pool, a few miles away, tots of color stare forlornly through the locked gates of the Williams Park Pool. No pool for you.

The city offered perfectly reasonable and justified explanations for the double standard. Both pools had been closed for failing federal safety standards requiring drain covers.

As it turned out, it was easier to repair and bring up to code the Interbay facility, while to renovate Williams could cost as much as $105,000 or more.

Again, all perfectly reasonable — and politically indefensible.

The city's credit rating could take a dive. Next year's GOP convention could turn into the Syrian uprising, and the University of South Florida could announce it was pulling up stakes and moving to Georgia. But by 2015, when the mayor is up for re-election, what the citizens of east Tampa are going to remember is that when it was hot and humid, the South Tampa tots got to go swimming while they were given a bouncing ball.

Good luck campaigning in the Williams Park neighborhood.

In a place like Chicago, a problem like this gets solved by the brother-in-law of the ward committeeman suddenly being awarded an emergency contract to subcontract with the nephew of the precinct captain to work in liaison with the cousin the alderman to fix the !{*&^%$ pool before the mayor has a chance to read the paper and discover he has just royally annoyed a sizable slice of his constituents.

Tampa is not so blessed with the efficiencies of this form of government.

But here is what Buckhorn does know. No matter how much City Hall may whine and fret and insist its pockets are empty, its cupboards are bare and nary a cent can be found in the seat cushions, there is always some money stashed away somewhere for moments such as this.

And Buckhorn also knows, as Mel Brooks once so famously observed, it's good to be king. It is also a good idea to get re-elected.

The pool kerfuffle is a symbol of Tampa social life, political reality and race relations. The haves get to jump the line. The have-nots get mugged with bureaucratic fiddle-faddle.

Not to give unsolicited advice to the politically savvy Buckhorn, but perhaps it might be worthwhile to announce until the Williams Park Pool is fixed — starting immediately — with some money that just materialized, then the Interbay Pool will be closed until further notice.

You'll be amazed how fast government can work — when it needs to.

Tampa's public perception belly flop 07/25/11 [Last modified: Monday, July 25, 2011 6:36pm]

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