St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster made the correct decision to fire Goliath Davis this week after Davis ignored the mayor's direction to attend the funeral of slain Officer David Crawford. It is entirely reasonable for the mayor to expect the city's top black administrator and a former police chief to join the city in publicly mourning a fallen officer. And when top aides are insubordinate, be it in City Hall or private business, they tend to lose their jobs. Davis played by his own rules, and his independence finally caught up with him.
This was a showdown that could have been avoided, and it was one neither Foster nor Davis handled particularly well. Davis surprised Foster when he did not attend the funerals for Sgt. Thomas Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz, who were killed in the line of duty in January. And Foster defended Davis after he was criticized for skipping their funerals and attending the funeral for Hydra Lacy Jr., who killed Baitinger and Yaslowitz in a shoot-out.
So it is understandable that Foster directed Davis to attend Crawford's funeral. When he did not attend, the mayor had no other recourse but to dismiss him. Davis is a savvy political insider, and after all of his years in the Police Department and City Hall he should have understood how his absence would be noted and misconstrued in a city long divided over police and race relations.
Both Davis and Foster could have been more graceful Friday. Davis held a noisy news conference and portrayed himself as a victim. He said he attended the wakes of the three officers but could not attend the funerals because of emotional scars left from attending the 1980 funeral of another St. Petersburg officer. He blamed a radio shock jock, the media and everyone but himself for his dismissal. He alluded to double standards at City Hall and racial bigotry fueled by his attendance at the Lacy funeral. After years of working to improve race relations and erase dividing lines, Davis drew a dangerous one along Central Avenue to separate white and black residents for his own self-interest. St. Petersburg has moved beyond such narrow thinking, and this was an ungraceful exit from public service.
Foster could have cleared the air and helped himself with more public candor. His initial press release was not forthright and outlined a reorganization. St. Petersburg residents can appreciate the firing of a top aide who did not follow a specific direction. Now the mayor has the difficult task of re-uniting a city already mourning the deaths of three police officers. With St. Petersburg's most visible black city official gone, Foster has to recommit to embracing diversity, ensuring all voices in the city are heard and providing quality services to all neighborhoods.
Davis has a solid record of contributions as police chief and a top city administrator, and he helped small businesses and minority residents who may otherwise not have been heard. But Davis also was controversial and too often seemed to advance his own agenda as much as the city's. He was close to former Mayor Rick Baker, who persuaded him to move to City Hall after retiring as police chief and gave him tremendous latitude. Davis may have stayed too long, grudgingly backing Foster in the mayor's race as candidate Kathleen Ford effectively pledged to fire him. The two men are not close, and this was a political marriage that never was going to be long term.
Ideally, Davis could have helped St. Petersburg heal one more time and retired from city government with a big party and a gold watch. Instead his stubbornness cost him his job.