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Times recommends: Rick Baker for St. Petersburg mayor

St. Petersburg voters are fortunate to have two experienced candidates for mayor. Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker have deep roots in the city and long records of public service. Both have helped transform St. Petersburg into an urban success story. At this moment, Baker is the better choice to keep the city on track.

Baker, 61, served as mayor from 2001 to 2010 and helped build the foundation for St. Petersburg's renaissance. He helped ensure Beach Drive became a walkable destination with restaurants and outdoor cafes rather than a condo canyon. He was a key player in bringing the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to the city, finding the site and public money for the iconic Salvador Dalí Museum and negotiating a new home for St. Petersburg College, the Florida Orchestra and American Stage.

RICK VS. RICK: Follow complete coverage of the St. Petersburg mayoral campaign

Beyond downtown, Baker improved the city's quality of life. Unlike any St. Petersburg mayor before or since, he was a passionate advocate for public education as he raised private money for college scholarships, created mentoring programs and established business partnerships with schools. Unlike any mayor before or since, he focused on improving the city's poor, black neighborhoods in the Midtown area south of downtown. He helped bring a grocery store, a credit union and a full-service post office to that community. He also helped lead efforts that brought Midtown a health clinic, a St. Petersburg College campus and the sprawling Job Corps training center.

Baker remained a positive force after leaving office. Working for entrepreneur Bill Edwards, he oversaw the transformation of downtown's fading BayWalk into the upscale Sundial. He also led a successful voter referendum this spring that would allow a privately financed soccer stadium to be built at Al Lang Stadium if Edwards, the owner of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, wins a Major League Soccer franchise.

DIRK SHADD | Times

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, left, and former Mayor Rick Baker debate at the Palladium Theater on Tuesday.

We appreciate the major accomplishments of the Kriseman administration. Most significantly, the incumbent mayor negotiated a fair agreement with the Tampa Bay Rays to let the team look on both sides of the bay for a new stadium site, a critical step toward keeping Major League Baseball in our community. He also pushed forward with a plan for a new Pier after the first one had been rejected by the voters.

Kriseman, 54, can count other successes. A new police station is under construction, curbside recycling has taken hold and the city is reinvesting in cultural arts, affordable housing and other areas. The mayor also improved St. Petersburg's relationships with other governments throughout the region, from Pinellas County to Tampa.

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Yet those achievements are diminished by poor decisions that erode our confidence in Kriseman's judgment. About 200 million gallons of sewage spilled into Tampa Bay and elsewhere over the past two years, triggering federal and state investigations. The mayor and his administration failed residents by initially providing little information and then wrong information. For months, there were conflicting explanations about the causes of the spills, confusion about solutions and an unwillingness by the mayor to accept responsibility. In fact, one of Kriseman's responses was to hire a $90,000-a-year spokesman to spread good news about the sewers. The sewage mess was largely the result of misjudgments and mismanagement, not poor public relations. The mayor's willingness during Tuesday night's debate to be held accountable and acknowledge mistakes is appreciated but too late.

Another key concern: Kriseman spends public money too freely. The new police station and firing range will cost $85 million. The Pier project could approach $80 million. To answer complaints from poor neighborhoods that they were not benefiting from the economic recovery, the city paid public money to small businesses for painting and landscaping — including the local Democratic Party that was forced to decline after the public backlash.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker announces he is running for the office again on the steps of City Hall on May 9.

Every mayor needs a strong team, and some of Kriseman's key players have failed the mayor and city residents. His chief of staff remains a divisive, destructive figure who never should have been hired. The fire chief who provided little oversight over firefighters swapping shifts should have been fired. The public works administrator lacks credibility. A mayor with a big-picture management approach has to surround himself with better performers.

In a second act as mayor, Baker would face his own challenges. Our biggest concern is Baker's consistent failure to acknowledge St. Petersburg's future is tied to the rest of Tampa Bay. As mayor, he raised tensions with Pinellas County officials and other neighbors. He would have to cultivate better relationships and broaden his vision to help ensure the Rays stay in the region and to help bring transit to Tampa Bay.

Baker also could not turn back the clock in choosing key staff. Kriseman's best hire was police Chief Anthony Holloway, and Baker should keep him. We also trust that Baker recognizes St. Petersburg is an even more diverse city than when he left office. Despite assertions by Kriseman that Baker would be less inclusive, we accept Baker's commitment to equality and opportunity for all.

The Times has recommended both Kriseman and Baker for mayor in the past. In this election, we believe Baker with his hands-on management style is more likely to keep St. Petersburg on an upward trajectory. We have more confidence in Baker to responsibly overhaul the sewer system, ensure the new Pier is a point of civic pride rather than an expensive flop, and bring new vitality to Midtown neighborhoods. With his experience inside and outside government, Baker also is better prepared to oversee the redevelopment of 85 acres at Tropicana Field — with or without a baseball stadium.

Aside from the sewer debacle, St. Petersburg is humming along nicely with a growing national reputation as "cool.'' It will take stronger leadership and better attention to detail from the next mayor to maintain that momentum. In the Aug. 29 election for mayor of St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Rick Baker.

Times recommends: Rick Baker for St. Petersburg mayor 07/28/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 29, 2017 8:01am]
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