St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has a credibility problem. First, he bemoaned the closing of a grocery store and complained that company executives never alerted him about declining business. Then it turned out he was warned but didn't remember the meeting. Occasional forgetfulness can be forgiven. But this is just the latest example of this mayor being less than accurate in his public declarations to voters about issues of public importance.
Foster began the week by holding a news conference outside the Sweetbay grocery store on 22nd Street South that has been a cornerstone of revitalization efforts for the economically depressed Midtown area. During the Monday news conference, Foster and other local leaders complained that they never had been contacted by Sweetbay executives. They stated repeatedly that if they had only known about the store's revenue issues they would have worked to ensure it wasn't among the 22 across Tampa Bay slated for closure as part of the chain's retrenching.
The problem: When it came to Foster, it wasn't true. Sweetbay told the Tampa Bay Times' Mark Puente on Tuesday that an official for the store had met with Foster and a city staffer in April 2011 in City Hall to discuss how to draw more customers to the struggling Midtown store. Foster denied the meeting took place when asked by Puente, then acknowledged it after consulting his calendar. The mayor said he recalled nothing about the meeting, tastelessly blaming his faulty recollection on the aftermath of the deaths of three police officers killed in the line of duty in January and February 2011.
Foster could be given the benefit of the doubt if it weren't for his track record. Criticized for his inaction on the Tampa Bay Rays' quest for a new stadium, he claimed in 2011 to have a "secret plan" to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg. The only secret plan was stonewalling.
Then came the controversy last year over security expenses tied to the welcome party for the Republican National Convention at Tropicana Field. Foster repeatedly assured the public that not one penny of St. Petersburg tax money would be required. Then an unexpected $5.2 million city budget deficit included a mention of $580,000 in expenses for RNC security that Foster and his staff struggled to explain. That turned out to be a rough estimate, but Foster finally acknowledged that city taxpayers would pay $28,000.
A pattern of misleading public statements by an elected official is a problem for all kinds of reasons. Who can blame Midtown residents for believing that Foster, despite his rhetoric on Monday, has been less than attentive about the neighborhood's future? Or what exactly can be believed about his efforts regarding the Rays stadium? And what can county leaders trust in negotiations over the financial future of the countywide EMS system?
Too often, Foster says one thing and does another. Or he forgets what happened. Or his rhetoric doesn't match public records. The city elections later this year will give voters an opportunity to decide whether they still trust him.