The Doorways Scholarship Program, which promises college scholarships to low-income Pinellas County sixth-graders who maintain their grades and remain drug-free, is a worthy charitable endeavor. But St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster should not have launched an aggressive campaign to directly solicit funds for scholarships from city employees. No matter the mayor's motive, such strong-arm tactics have no place in City Hall.
Foster's support for the scholarships pick up where his predecessor, Rick Baker, left off. Baker saw the scholarship sponsored by the Pinellas Education Foundation as a great tool to encourage student achievement. But Baker relied on fundraising events as well as the altruism of affluent philanthropists to help cover the costs of more than 100 scholarships a year.
At least one such philanthropist has died, and the economy has reduced other donations to the program, prompting Foster to launch a City Hall fundraising drive by distributing personalized donation cards to each employee.
Foster insists the program is voluntary and he has no plan to find out who does or does not give. But solicitations by the boss in any workplace can be fraught with problems, particularly when the boss is an elected official.
The card Foster allowed to be distributed — which employees are being told they have to return regardless of whether they donate — clearly implies that the mayor expects employees to ante up for a cause he supports: "Our goal is 100 percent of the city of St. Petersburg's employees supporting the Mayor's Mentors and More Doorways Scholarship Program!" In fact, there is nowhere on the card to decline to participate. The card also notes that for every dollar "the mayor raises" there is potential for matching funds.
The overall effect is a ham-handed shakedown of city workers to help the boss look good. Foster should put a stop to the campaign immediately. City workers who wish to contribute to the commendable Doorways program remain free to do so without the mayor looking over their shoulders.