One candidate for St. Petersburg mayor offers the experience and leadership to build on the city's accomplishments and meet its challenges. Bill Foster embraces the progress and offers an optimistic vision for the future. Kathleen Ford sees flaws, fights old battles and charts a different direction — backward.
St. Petersburg has made significant strides in recent years, from bringing new life to downtown to improving neighborhoods to investing heavily in impoverished Midtown. Now those successes have been tempered by the economic recession. The city budget is tighter. The crime rate has ticked up, and there are more vacant storefronts. A community group soon will deliver a report on options for a new baseball stadium, and the Tampa Bay Rays are not going to wait forever to renew discussions.
Voters should carefully examine the candidates' positions and consider which one has the competence and demeanor to steer St. Petersburg in a positive direction. On substance and style, Foster is the clear choice.
Spending. While on the City Council from 1998 to 2008, Foster consistently voted for budgets that gradually reduced the city's property tax rate. With property tax revenue expected to drop several million dollars again next year because of declining property values, he would strategically look for ways to reduce spending while maintaining essential services. Most importantly, he would continue the city's policy of not using reserves to pay for recurring expenses. Foster, a 46-year-old lawyer, understands that much of that money is pledged for specific uses and would be needed if a major hurricane hit.
Ford misleads voters by claiming the city is flush with readily accessible cash. She suggests much of roughly $300 million in various city accounts could be easily spent when only several million dollars is readily available. The 52-year-old lawyer would cut the property tax rate, raid reserves and disrupt City Hall by firing top staffers. That would leave the city short of both financial and human capital.
Business climate. Foster offers both short-term and long-term approaches. He supported BayWalk as a council member and recognizes the city needed to address issues involving protesters and crowds of teens in order for the complex to attract new tenants. He would stop enforcing downtown parking meters at night and continue efforts to attract investment in Midtown. He offers more than two dozen other practical proposals, from recruiting corporate partners to sponsor parks and recreation centers to holding local business summits. Long-term, he recognizes that public safety and education are the key to business recruitment, and he pledges to build on incumbent Mayor Rick Baker's education initiatives.
Ford voted against the BayWalk parking garage as a council member and offers no real solutions for reviving the retail complex. The cornerstone of her economic development plan is to eliminate downtown parking meters. She also talks vaguely of attracting science-oriented businesses but offers no specifics. Instead of embracing Baker's education mentoring initiatives, she wants to audit them. Instead of continuing public investment in Midtown, she wants to change the area's name.
Crime. Foster would increase the police presence downtown and aggressively go after drugs, prostitution and burglaries in Midtown. He talks persuasively about improving the quality of life block by block by focusing on details such as code enforcement and using community policing, which he says will lead to a reduction in serious crime.
Ford contends police officers look the other way when they know of trouble spots, but she offers no evidence. She would meddle in the ways officers are dispatched. Her pledge to hire more officers is a nice campaign slogan, but the city's police force is at a record high and there is no money to pay for additional positions.
Stadium. Foster was the first to suggest creating a community group to study possibilities for a new stadium. He promises to work on a consensus plan and favors the Tropicana Field site as the home for a new stadium and redevelopment. He recognizes some public money would be needed, and he would ask for voter approval.
Ford says the city cannot afford a new stadium, questions the economic benefit of having a major league team and pledges to sue the Rays if they try to break their lease before it expires in 2027. She even contends the community group looking at options is interfering with the city's contract with the team. It is a simplistic, confrontational approach that fails to recognize the Trop is outdated and needs to be replaced long before the team's lease expires.
Foster was a constructive presence on the City Council, supporting prudent city budgets, investment in Midtown and public projects such as the renovation of the Mahaffey Theater. Ford berated staff members and other council members during her one term between 1997 and 2001, even hiring her own court reporter to record a council meeting as though she was planning to sue. There is a reason every council member who served with her but one has endorsed Foster.
Foster can be rhetorically clumsy. But he recognizes as mayor he would have to choose his words more carefully than he did as a private citizen, when he expressed alarm about an unruly crowd at BayWalk and wrote an intemperate letter to the School Board promoting creationism. His message has become more refined during the campaign, and he pledges his personal religious beliefs would not interfere with his commitment to civil liberties or efforts to attract high-tech business.
Ford has a record of pitting neighborhoods against each other and making irresponsible allegations. She once famously argued for tougher code enforcement because "Snell Isle is only going to be so nice if the Old Northeast is a good buffer.'' As a council member, she accused then-police Chief Goliath Davis of lying and suggested he was tipping off drug dealers about investigations without offering any proof.
In this campaign, without any evidence she suggested the police knew of drug dealing at the Midtown home where an 8-year-old girl was shot and killed in a gang-related shooting in April. In a Chamber of Commerce candidate interview, she recklessly claimed Foster knew of rumors that the late council member John Bryan engaged in pedophilia and lied about it. She has mischaracterized the adoption of the city's investment strategies. And her heavy-handed references to Foster's religious faith borders on intolerance.
The winner of this election will be St. Petersburg's third strong mayor after decades of the city manager-style of government. David Fischer, who was the first, reached out to neighborhoods, emphasized quality of life issues and brought new momentum to downtown. Since he defeated Ford in 2001, Rick Baker has brought new emphasis to public education, reduced the crime rate and the property tax rate, helped downtown blossom and improved Midtown. Foster would build on those successes. Ford would reverse them. Foster forges consensus and brings an upbeat sense of possibilities for the future. Ford creates confrontations and attacks City Hall as though she is more intent on avenging her last election loss than in setting a course for a brighter future.
In the Nov. 3 election, the Times recommends Bill Foster for mayor.