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Stylistic differences mask philosophical ones

The campaign to become the city's "strong mayor" is almost entirely about style.

There is Mayor David Fischer, saying his calm, soft-spoken leadership approach has produced thousands of new jobs, lower tax rates, a more vibrant downtown and upgraded neighborhoods. Then there is retired Army Gen. Bill Klein, saying Fischer's lack of decisive leadership was glaring during the racial disturbances in October and November and that entrenched bureaucrats are really running the city.

But there is little indication that the direction of city government could shift dramatically depending on the outcome of the March 25 election. Klein may be gung-ho and Fischer low-key, but their words on the campaign trail point to similar priorities and philosophies.

Both talk of keeping taxes low. Fischer has lowered the tax rate every year in office, but Klein criticizes him for raising other fees and rates. Both stress the importance of healing racial divisions in the city and promoting more job training programs. Both talk about the city needing to promote economic development and continuing neighborhood revitalization programs.

This is the first time in about 60 years that voters are choosing a "strong mayor," since voters four years ago did away with the city manager form of government. Now the elected mayor is responsible for day-to-day operations.

Political newcomer Klein finished first in the four-person primary Feb. 25, and the race now looks neck and neck. While Klein calls Fischer a weak leader, and Fischer calls Klein a stranger who knows little about St. Petersburg, their philosophical differences have gained little attention.

But they do exist:

+ Klein has been a strong critic of the city's house-by-house code enforcement survey, saying it has pestered citizens for petty problems while doing too little about chronic slum properties. He would return to a complaints-only enforcement program.

Fischer notes that neighborhood associations asked for the citywide codes sweep and that it has tangibly helped improve many neighborhoods. But he agrees it has unnecessarily antagonized too many citizens and plans to reconvene a citizens committee to reexamine the program.

+ Klein argues that Fischer deserves blame for the violent racial disturbances that erupted after the fatal police shooting of an 18-year-old black motorist. "I think if you're addressing the root problems, you're not going to have disturbances," he said.

Fischer contends that virtually any city is vulnerable to such disturbances, especially after a police incident. He agrees the city has to focus on root causes of the tensions but says that he worked hard to emphasize neighborhood empowerment and alleviate tensions in the city.

+ Klein has a more aggressive vision for economic growth in St. Petersburg than Fischer. Klein, for instance, criticizes Fischer for viewing St. Petersburg as "built out" and would support changing the land use plan to allow more population density in St. Petersburg.

Fischer, like Klein, also stresses the importance of more economic development, but he would oppose greater population density in St. Petersburg. "We have a good balance right now, and I would not want to disrupt it. I don't think people want wall-to-wall skyscrapers."

+ Klein has promised to clear out some of the city's upper level administrators and bring in his "own team." He said he might hire some of his key political supporters, but only if they are qualified.

Fischer has drawn a line against political hires. Since his second-place primary finish, however, he has stressed that he also plans to get rid of some staff members not performing up to his standards.

+ Klein is much less conciliatory and much more skeptical about a plan to calm the region's water wars by consolidating area water systems into one regional utility. The plan would involve the city selling its three city-owned well fields, and Klein is dubious about the city relinquishing too much control to other counties complaining about environmental damage from pumping.

"I'm not going to cough up those wells and let Pasco and Hillsborough counties grow, and us suffer," Klein said.

Fischer was an architect of that water supply plan and argues that St. Petersburg can no longer view itself as an autonomous player in the region's water supply skirmishes. "The only water we have is in Pasco and Hillsborough (counties), and they're finished with us," he said.

Those policy difference have been easily overshadowed by general campaign rhetoric about leadership style and community involvement.

"This race is about leadership. Leadership is about setting goals and taking responsibility," Klein says at most campaign appearances. He has painted Fischer as a hands-off leader who has let bureaucrats run the city and let red tape stifle economic development.

Fischer has largely been running on his record, pointing to lower tax rates, aggressive beautification efforts, neighborhood upgrades lower downtown vacancy rates, and the city finally getting Major League Baseball.

Fischer stresses Klein's lack of local experience, noting that the general has never worked in the city, never served on any boards and is largely unknown.

"He has no record in the city whatsoever. There is no way to judge him," Fischer said.

THE JOB

Under the city's 4-year-old strong mayor-weak City Council form of government, the mayor is the elected administrator. He or she runs the day-to-day operations of the city government. The City Council sets policy and controls the purse strings by approving a budget submitted by the mayor and approving large expenditures. The mayor is elected from voters citywide in a non-partisan election and serves a four-year term. The salary is $100,000.

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