St. Petersburg has made great strides in recent years. Downtown has experienced a renaissance, the inner city area known as Midtown has seen significant public and private investment and neighborhoods have received renewed attention. Yet formidable challenges await the next mayor, including deciding the fate of the Pier, answering the Tampa Bay Rays' call for a new stadium, addressing homelessness and managing city finances strained by the economic recession. Among the 10 candidates for mayor, Bill Foster is best-prepared to lead with a steady hand in uncertain times.
Foster is a fourth-generation St. Petersburg native who has been active in the city's civic life for years. The 46-year-old lawyer's goal has long been to run the city — he once applied to be city manager before he was 30. He served on the City Council from 1998 to 2008, working closely with Mayor Rick Baker and Baker's predecessor, David Fischer. Foster is their logical successor in a city that prefers steady progress over dramatic changes in direction.
During Foster's tenure on the council, the city made enormous investments in impoverished Midtown and attracted a grocery store and other amenities to the area. Downtown flourished, the crime rate decreased and the city's property tax rate declined. In his council district in northeast St. Petersburg, Foster paid attention to both popular improvements to parks and the nitty-gritty details of storm water and infrastructure improvements. He was well-prepared, and he was better than most at balancing the needs of his district and the broader needs of the city.
Foster has an appreciation for the city's history and a good ear for public sentiment. He led the efforts to publicly purchase and restore Sunken Gardens, which turned out marvelously. As a private citizen last year, Foster was among the first to recommend defusing a divisive debate over the Rays' proposed waterfront stadium by creating a community group to examine the options – a move the Rays and the city eventually embraced.
As mayor, Foster would offer comforting continuity. He recognizes Baker's considerable efforts to improve public education and pledges to continue them. He would maintain the conservative approach to building city budgets, offering neither wild new spending plans nor drastic cutbacks but a methodical effort to make government more efficient. He has been measured and responsible on the campaign trail, avoiding the rashness of other candidates who have called for the quick removal of the police chief, the hiring of dozens of new police officers and the spending of city reserves on recurring expenses that would risk St. Petersburg's fiscal stability.
Yet Foster would chart his own course as mayor. He recognizes there is the public perception, at least, that police do not go after drugs and nonviolent crimes in Midtown as aggressively as they would in more affluent neighborhoods. He calls for the police to pay more attention to drugs, prostitution and burglary. He would shift police resources to where they are most needed, seek a gradual return to community policing, stress crime prevention and give Chief Chuck Harmon an opportunity to embrace his priorities.
Foster also offers more than two dozen practical proposals that reflect lean economic times and the need for more public involvement to share public responsibilities. His suggestions range from recruiting corporate partners to sponsor parks and recreation centers to holding local business summits to enhancing crime watch programs. He is committed to the Pinellas Hope homeless shelter and assisting homeless military veterans. He is willing to negotiate with the Rays for a new stadium on the Tropicana Field site that will require some public funding.
As important as building on the accomplishments of the past eight years is addressing some shortcomings. Foster, who was not always a peacemaker as a council member in his dealings with Pinellas officials, pledges a new spirit of cooperation with the county – particularly the Sheriff's Office -- and recognizes the potential for cost savings for taxpayers. As tax revenues decline, the need for cooperation between local governments and consolidation of services will become even more pressing.
At times, Foster has spoken in haste and escalated the rhetoric rather than cooling passions. We also have disagreed with his conservative social views, including those in his intemperate letter to the School Board last year promoting creationism. Those views have little to do with being mayor. Foster makes a convincing argument that he recognizes the weight his words and tone would carry if he is elected, and his campaign reflects that maturity. He has articulated a reassuring commitment to civil liberties and constitutional rights, and that would be the yard stick to measure his performance.
Among the other candidates for mayor, businessman Scott Wagman offers new energy and a range of bold ideas – including immediately firing Harmon and hiring 100 more police officers over four years – that make better campaign pledges than public policy. Businessman Deveron Gibbons has run a well-organized campaign, but he offers more generalities than specifics in the same manner as Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who endorsed him.
Besides Foster, there are three other current or former City Council members in the race who hold less promise. Former City Council member Kathleen Ford offers plenty of specifics, but she was particularly divisive on the council and her ideas about eliminating top city staff positions, spending city reserves and forcing the Rays to honor their long-term lease at the Trop are short-sighted. City Council member Jamie Bennett has offered progressive ideas for dealing with the homeless, but his shifting positions and false campaign starts raise questions about his judgment. Former council member Larry Williams finished a strong third in the mayor's race eight years ago and would be a calming influence, but his window of opportunity may have passed.
In this crowded field, one candidate is best prepared to methodically build upon the city's recent successes and pragmatically address the challenges ahead. In the Sept. 1 primary, the Times recommends Bill Foster for mayor.
Voters in three St. Petersburg City Council districts will vote for council members on Sept. 1. The top two vote-getters in each district will advance to the November citywide election. The Times recommends:
District 4: Leslie Curran
District 5: Steve Kornell
District 6: Karl Nurse
Opportunity to reply
Candidates for St. Petersburg mayor not recommended by the Times editorial board may submit a response of up to 150 words by 5 p.m. Monday to editor of editorials Tim Nickens, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL, 33731; or by fax: (727) 893-8675; e-mail at TNickens@sptimes.com; or at www.tampabay.com/letters.