Bill Foster for mayor
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.
For a better City Council
The St. Petersburg City Council faces a number of challenges, including establishing spending priorities as tax revenues decline, dealing with the homeless and deciding the fate of the Pier. Council members also will have to work with a new mayor. Seats in five council districts are on the Nov. 3 ballot, and voters citywide will vote for each seat.
James R. "Jim" Kennedy Jr., District 2
In two brief years on the City Council, Jim Kennedy has emerged as one of the council's most thoughtful members, particularly on financial issues. He does not make headlines, but Kennedy has quietly left his mark and deserves to be elected to a full term.
Kennedy, a 52-year-old lawyer, was appointed to his seat in October 2007 after the death of council member John Bryan. He previously directed his civic energies to Community Action Stops Abuse, where he served three times as president. He rarely speaks during council meetings, but he pays closer attention than most.
Kennedy diligently prepares before each council session and works beforehand to change proposals to address concerns. He quickly became the council's expert on the city budget, and that will be important as the council works with a new mayor.
Earlier this month, Kennedy read all of the case law before supporting Mayor Rick Baker's plan for revitalizing BayWalk and vacating a public sidewalk. He recognized the importance of reviving the retail complex to the overall success of downtown. But Kennedy is not always aligned with the mayor. He wisely objected when Baker sought to rescind raises called for in the city's union contracts.
In District 2, the city's northernmost, Kennedy has worked to expand reclaimed water hookups, secured dredging projects and opened parks. He hopes to pursue further expansion of the reclaimed water network, consider offering curbside recycling and create a unified downtown waterfront plan.
Steve Corsetti, 65, is particularly well-prepared for a first-time candidate. The retired New England police chief and small businessman is a regular fixture at council meetings and a leader in his neighborhood. He talks knowledgeably about the need to promote mass transit and create a unified waterfront plan. But Corsetti could be tempted to micromanage as a public official in a New Hampshire hamlet can.
There is nothing flashy about Kennedy, but his evenhandedness and strong work ethic make him a good custodian of the public's trust.
For District 2, the Times recommends James R. "Jim" Kennedy.
Leslie Curran, District 4
No one running for City Council has more experience than incumbent Leslie Curran, who is seeking a second term and previously served for eight years in the 1990s. During her most recent stint, which began in 2005, the small business owner has made a strong imprint on the city's artistic life through projects that have supported and encouraged local artists. And she's been a vocal advocate for increasing the public's access to council proceedings.
Curran, 53, most recently helped negotiate the plan to turn the derelict Crislip Arcade in the 600 block of Central Avenue into an artists' community, potentially turning an eyesore into a vital arts offering downtown. And two years ago, she launched the seasonal Art in the Park in downtown's Williams Park on Saturdays.
While a solid council member, Curran can be far less vocal on many issues and less willing to lead on broader issues beyond arts and the downtown. Her recent explanation for opposing the proposal to vacate the sidewalk outside BayWalk was more defensive than well-reasoned as she complained nothing had been done to help other businesses that had failed in downtown. But that ignores the significant public investment in BayWalk and the negative impact on other businesses if the complex fails.
Pamella Settlegoode, 60, says it's time for new blood on the council but has failed to make a compelling case. The St. Petersburg native returned here in 2006 after decades teaching in Oregon and volunteering in Portland's neighborhood organizations. She offers big ideas — such as lowering all city staff salaries below $100,000 to save money and promising to oppose any budget cuts to parks and recreation programs. But she does not have the grasp of city issues or the historical perspective that Curran has through her years of service.
Curran has offered solutions to practical issues regarding the arts and her district. In her next term, she should step up and help build consensus on broader issues.
For District 4, the Times recommends Leslie Curran.
Steve Kornell, District 5
This open race to represent the city's southern district has been the most interesting of this election. Two likeable St. Petersburg natives seeking to replace outgoing incumbent Jamie Bennett advanced after the primary. Steve Kornell, a social worker and former city parks recreation staffer, has demonstrated the greatest command of the issues and conducted the most vigorous campaign.
Kornell, 43, pledges to bring both a progressive agenda and fiscal realism to the job. He has worked with children from across the city, first in roles managing Shore Acres and Childs Park recreation centers and now as a social worker in Pinellas County schools. And he is convinced the city can do more to coordinate with the school district to intervene in at-risk children's lives, ultimately saving the city money in the long run. He also advocates curbside recycling, consolidating of services with the county to save money, investment in public transportation and more efforts to prevent homelessness.
But Kornell is practical in his approach to the city's tight budget. He is not ready to push to spend more money for more police officers, and he wants to find a plan for the Pier that will eliminate the city's $1.5 million operating subsidy. He is not opposed to a building a new baseball stadium, but he does not want to increase the city's annual debt payments. He also is not keen to dip into the city's reserves to use one-time money to pay for recurring expenses, a major difference with his opponent, Angela Rouson. Kornell is right that those reserves should be held back for emergencies such as hurricane recovery.
Rouson, 42, is a Pinellas County Housing Authority member who is married to state Rep. Darryl Rouson. Before becoming a stay-at-home mother for their five sons four years ago, Rouson had worked for St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, Ceridian and Bayfront Medical Center. Her performance in the campaign has improved from the primary, and she could be a promising candidate in the future. But Kornell remains better informed on the issues and has more specific proposals.
For District 5, the Times recommends Steve Kornell.
Karl Nurse, District 6
Karl Nurse has become the City Council's most creative, innovative and energetic member in the 18 months since he was appointed to fill an unexpired term. The longtime neighborhood leader's initiatives have benefited both his district and the entire city. Voters should return him to the council for a full term.
Nurse, 55, owns a successful printing business. Before joining the council, he was president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, chaired the city Planning Commission and founded the Living Green Expo.
As the recession took hold and threatened low-income residents of his district, Nurse initiated a city effort to educate residents on how to avoid foreclosure. With no banks conveniently located in his district and residents victimized by predatory lending, Nurse worked with other officials to recruit a credit union that will be Midtown's first financial institution.
An advocate for green initiatives, Nurse recently suggested a way to use utility tax revenue to help residents pay for energy efficiency upgrades of their homes. He also has worked to make city government more transparent and accessible. For example, he pushed and cajoled until other council members agreed to allow their council committee meetings to be televised. He also got more documents posted to the city Web site.
Looking ahead, Nurse will continue to focus on the revitalization of Midtown, expansion of a loan program to make homes more energy efficient and better relationships with county government. He supported the sidewalk vacation at BayWalk, and he supports redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site as part of any plans for a new stadium.
Vel Thompson, 51, a cosmetology student and former city employee who was fired for misconduct last year, is well-known in the district. But she is not well-prepared to handle the challenges that confront local governments. Nurse has demonstrated he can serve the needs of the city as a whole and District 6 in particular with energy and vision.
For District 6, the Times recommends Karl Nurse.
Jeff Danner, District 8
With years of volunteer community service, Jeff Danner was prepared for public office when he was first elected to the City Council in 2005. Now he has four years of experience gained during some of the toughest times local governments have seen, and that should be invaluable in the next four years.
Danner, 49, has worked as a carpenter and contractor. As a council member, he has advocated a balance between development and preservation, promoted strong neighborhoods and supported the arts.
Danner unfortunately voted against vacating the public sidewalk for the failing BayWalk complex, but he did come back a week later with a pitch to study other options. He also fails to properly appreciate transparency in government. He remains unenthusiastic about televising the City Council's subcommittee meetings, and he participated in the surreptitious approval of millions in city tax incentives for Jabil Circuit.
But Danner has been right on other issues. He opposed the city's manhandling of unincorporated Tierra Verde when it annexed a sliver of the island over the vigorous objections of residents. He serves on the boards of the Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. The city needs a leader on transit, and Danner has the knowledge to fill that role.
While he wants a better business model for the Pier, Danner acknowledges it probably always will require a public subsidy. He understands the need to avoid spending reserve money on recurring expenses and the need to discuss options for a new baseball stadium before the Tampa Bay Rays' lease expires.
Leonard Schmiege, 40, calls himself a citizen journalist, a voting integrity activist and a videographer with clips posted on YouTube. He has a home-based business building mechanical and computer equipment. Schmiege is passionate but on the wrong side of a number of important issues — including his opposition to any public money toward a new stadium. Danner's stability and experience make him the better choice.
For District 8, the Times recommends Jeff Danner.
Yes on Charter Amendments
Charter Amendment 1: The ballot question asks, "Shall the City Charter be amended to provide for a consistent procedure for the filling of vacancies on the City Council regardless of the council member's district or the reason for the vacancy?"
Under the current charter, the procedure to fill a vacancy caused by resignation varies depending on when the council member resigns and which district the member represents.
If a council member who represents an even-numbered district resigns - to run for mayor, for example - remaining City Council members may appoint someone to fill the seat. But if a council member from an odd-numbered district resigns to run for mayor, voters choose the replacement in the next election.
That charter inconsistency was spotlighted when Larry Williams resigned to run for mayor in 2001 and when Jamie Bennett resigned to run for mayor this year. Both men wanted the voters, not the council, to choose their replacements.
The proposed charter amendment would erase those inconsistencies by creating a new procedure for filling vacancies when a member resigns from office.
If a council member submitted his resignation before the beginning of the candidate qualifying period for that year's city election, the replacement would be chosen by voters in that election. If he submitted his resignation after the qualifying period began and his district would be without representation for more than 50 days, the council would appoint a replacement to serve until the next scheduled city election.
It is important to have a consistent process that addresses all potential situations. On Charter Amendment 1, the Times recommends a yes vote.
Charter Amendment 2: The city charter spells out when city elections should be held. But what if the county supervisor of elections cannot conduct the election when the city charter dictates?
This ballot question, if approved, would place in the charter the authority for the City Council to change the election date by ordinance. State law already provides that authority, according to City Attorney John Wolfe, but the city charter language is vague and could be construed to require an expensive public referendum before the date could be changed.
On Charter Amendment 2, the Times recommends a yes vote.