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City leaders have growing pains

They were studying a report that outlined more than $1-million to be transferred from one city account to another.

In that pile of cash, though, City Council members focused on one little bundle: $50,000 the mayor wanted for a questionnaire.

What, Council Chairman Robert Stewart wanted to know, would the City Council's role be in this proposed questionnaire?

Mayor David Fischer responded by describing the survey he plans to send every household in St. Petersburg.

But wait, Stewart said again, what about the City Council? And other council members piped up: Didn't they have a role to play?

In the end, City Council approved spending for the questionnaire, but last week's exchange was one of several tangles to arise in recent weeks between Fischer and the council as St. Petersburg's leaders adjusted to new relationships under a changed government structure.

Council members complained that the city's first strong mayor in more than six decades needs to keep them better informed about his agenda for the city. "He cannot forget the people at the other end of the hall," council member Leslie Curran said.

Late last week, Fischer agreed and promised to change. "In my haste to give direction to the city, I haven't kept (City Council) with me, and that's been my fault," Fischer said.

The clashes were an expected byproduct of the new government structure adopted in April, according to a local political scientist.

"They're sort of feeling each other out," said Darryl Paulson, a professor at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. "It's a process of boundary setting. Each side is trying to establish its own position and authority."

And the pressure on Fischer to define his new role as a strong mayor has been particularly tough, Paulson said. The intensity of the mayoral campaign, Fischer's narrow margin of victory, and his soft-spoken image have contributed to the task's difficulty, Paulson said.

He used to be a voting member of the council with a lot of appointments to dedicate buildings and speak at civic club meetings.

Now, he controls the city's daily operations, handling administrative affairs and personnel matters. He lost his voting power, but can _ and does _ propose plans to council.

Last month, for instance, Fischer presented next year's city budget _ one in which he suggested specific cuts and changes, leaving council to consider a balanced, potentially finished document. In past years, city managers had given council members out-of-balance proposals, expecting them to make the necessary cuts.

"It's not dissimilar, quite frankly, to the political system on a national level: Like the president, he can propose what he wants," Paulson said. "But the (Congress) has to give it approval and give it financing."

Fischer needs to remember that he needs the council's votes, Paulson said.

"It doesn't matter what form of government you have, the biggest problem is going to be communication. Nobody likes to feel they're not being consulted," he said.

That's what bugged some council members a month ago when Fischer stopped attending weekly City Council workshops.

Where was the city administration with information they needed, they asked. They griped. Fischer started showing up again.

And that was what irked some council members when they heard that Fischer planned to hire a chief administrator next year to handle the day-to-day work of running city government at an annual salary of $100,000.

Earlier Fischer had said the price tag for that person would be less, but changed his mind when his ideas about the scope of that job changed. Fischer plans to shift other positions so the total cost of his administration will stay the same.

Council members said they were concerned about the change. Worse yet, some said, they were angry to learn about it from a newspaper reporter instead of the mayor himself.

"I don't like to be surprised by things," Curran said. "He needs to improve the communication. The mayor can't vote. If he wants anything to be approved, he's going to have to have our support.

"The transition to the new form of government is going to take a while," she said.

Council member David Welch agreed.

"I think that everybody, particularly council members, are just kind of feeling their way," Welch said. "But you've got to talk to each other. The mayor, in his position, can talk to council members about whatever he plans to do to get some kind of input.

"Absolutely, communication has to improve."

Fischer says it will.

His problem, he said, is that his new job has created 16-hour days. Between the old ceremonial duties _ cutting ribbons, honoring Boy Scout troops and speaking at luncheons _ and the new ones _ holding staff meetings, running City Hall's day-to-day operations and defining the city's priorities _Fischer's swamped, he said.

"That left me in a sense neglecting my own council," Fischer said Friday. "They've got a tremendous role to play, and I was moving too quick. I've got to move back a little bit, and bring them into what I'm doing. If I don't, I lose their support."

"I have just been absolutely snowed over the last weeks and months in trying to .


. keep the city moving and do the daily things the city needs to do," Fischer said. "I'm now realizing what's happened, and I'm going to give a lot more time to the council."

To that end, the mayor has invited council members to have lunch with him Tuesday. At the open, lunch meeting, he will share with them his priorities for the city, as well as his ideas for the citywide questionnaire.

Randy Wedding, a former mayor who led the referendum movement for the new form of government earlier this year, said such a gathering would be productive.

"It might be useful to have the council and mayor and staff sit down together . . . and discuss the process of how you establish targets and goals and how each plays a role," he said.

Overall, Wedding said, the system he had pressed for seems to be running smoothly, despite the periodic moments of tension. "I wouldn't be surprised if there were some daily hiccups," he said. "There's a lot to learn."