The 14.5 percent turnout for Tuesday's St. Petersburg municipal elections was underwhelming, but citizens who did cast ballots delivered a clear message to City Hall. By rejecting two candidates ill-advisedly endorsed by Mayor Bill Foster, voters ensured the city's chief executive will have some delicate political fence-mending to do as he enters the final two years of his term. And by rejecting a ballot measure to extend leases at the Port of St. Petersburg, voters again confirmed that they are not willing to cede control of the city's signature waterfront without a convincing plan from city leaders about what the change would entail.
The mayor will return from this week's trip to St. Petersburg's sister city, Takamatsu, Japan, to find an incoming City Council that is likely to be far less compliant and more confrontational — thanks in part to his own efforts. Both incoming District 1 council member Charlie Gerdes and returning District 7 council member Wengay Newton, a frequent Foster critic, saw Foster endorse their opponents in the campaign, respectively former council member Bob Kersteen and newcomer Gershom Faulkner. Yet both Gerdes and Newton won their seats by wide margins.
Also returned to the council was unopposed District 5 council member Steve Kornell, a sometime Foster critic who has shown an independent streak.
The results will require the mayor to sharpen his governing skills as the city confronts issues such as redevelopment of the Pier, the structure of the city's emergency response system, and the thorny future of the Tampa Bay Rays as the team presses to find an alternative to Tropicana Field. Foster can expect the newly constituted City Council to push for a bigger role in resolving those issues.
Foster and the City Council both, however, share the blame for the failed port measure — the second time in seven years voters have rejected City Hall's efforts to amend the City Charter to extend lease terms at the city's small downtown port from 10 years to 25 years. The problem was that City Hall provided only vague promises of more research vessels and mega-yachts at the port but had no concrete plan for making it happen. The approval, also on Tuesday, of a charter amendment requiring City Hall to develop a downtown waterfront master plan confirms that voters want specifics. Foster and the council should return to the drawing board and develop a specific proposal for the port to take to voters — not just more wiggle room to negotiate with private entities.
With a new council less amenable to the mayor and the defeat of the port lease referendum, voters have spoken to the need for a more forward-thinking City Hall. Both the mayor and the incoming City Council should take heed.