Bill Foster will be sworn in as St. Petersburg mayor today with a solid grasp of the challenges facing the city at the dawn of a new decade. In the short term, he can build on outgoing Mayor Rick Baker's eight years of revitalizing downtown, improving Midtown, lowering the crime rate and keeping the city's finances on sound footing despite a deep economic recession. Down the road are high-profile issues that will test Foster's leadership skills and leave his own imprint on the city.
Since his November election victory, the former City Council member has quietly accomplished a seamless transition. He tightened the senior city staff a bit and adjusted some responsibilities without a disruptive housecleaning. He met with police Chief Chuck Harmon at least a half-dozen times and found common ground on most issues, including a refined approach to community policing and crime prevention. A lingering question is whether Foster will bring some new talent to city government to provide a fresh look at familiar problems.
The new mayor has heeded the criticism that his predecessor too often brainstormed ideas in private and unveiled them with little public input. That sometimes stalled good ideas, such as the recent bid to remove 100 billboards in exchange for a handful of digital signs on major roads. Foster is beginning with a more consensus-building approach. He plans a community meeting on policing, and he is assembling an advisory committee to help market Al Lang Field and other city sports facilities. Unlike Baker, he is willing to let the ABC group studying new stadium alternatives for the Tampa Bay Rays to complete its work without interference. In the long run, more citizen participation on the front end can build public support more quickly and produce better long-term results.
Ultimately, though, the mayor sets the tone and direction. Foster plans to hold a series of job summits shortly, which could bring important focus to reducing unemployment. He also is determined to address voters' concerns about homelessness, panhandling and the public perception that there are different levels of law enforcement in different neighborhoods. A new mayor seeking to quickly establish himself could adopt overly aggressive approaches that would be illegal or unpopular. Foster recognizes the value of some incremental advances, such as providing restrooms for the homeless on private property. St. Petersburg already has pushed the legal limits on addressing the homeless and panhandling, and it will require a variety of calibrated strategies to make more progress.
Foster will be able to settle in a bit before meeting head-on such expensive and divisive issues as the future of the Pier and construction of a new baseball stadium for the Rays. He should proceed methodically and openly, and he should listen to a variety of options and opinions. Those big-ticket items will shape St. Petersburg for decades to come, and there is no need to rush to judgment.
As the city's third strong mayor, Foster has the opportunity to build on St. Petersburg's recent successes and address nagging issues exacerbated by the economic recession. He has developed a promising agenda for the opening months of his administration that should help him avoid rookie mistakes.