Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster traded accusations over the future of the Tampa Bay Rays and the city's investment strategies during their first debate Tuesday ahead of the Nov. 3 mayoral runoff.
Ford, who finished second in last week's primary, tried to paint the election as a referendum on the Tampa Bay Rays' quest for a new ballpark, suggesting Foster supports a publicly subsidized stadium.
"This particular mayor's race is about whether or not that new stadium is going to get built," Ford, 52, told about 240 people gathered at the music center on the St. Petersburg College Gibbs Campus.
Foster continued to say that any stadium plan would need approval from voters at a referendum, and later agreed with Ford that now isn't the time to be discussing a new ballpark plan.
Foster suggested Ford might block a referendum on any stadium proposal, a move that could force the Rays to try to leave.
"Ultimately the decision has to be yours," Foster, 46, said to the crowd. "I'm going to give you that dialogue, that right to vote. Mrs. Ford isn't."
Ford has said any new taxpayer-financed ballpark would require voter approval, but she believes the city cannot afford one and should keep the Rays at Tropicana Field.
The debate, which was hosted by state Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, and the St. Petersburg College student government association, was focused in part on issues facing the city's west side. Candidates answered questions about safety on the Pinellas Trail and the role of St. Petersburg College in the city.
But they also touched on issues of citywide importance.
Ford and Foster, both attorneys and former City Council members, differed on their recollection of a city investment strategy known as securities lending.
Ford said she opposed the investments, and that they were approved after she left the council in 2001. That lending practice lost the city $15 million, Ford said.
Foster said that Ford in 1997 had approved of securities lending as part of the city's investment strategy. Ford said that vote was misconstrued by Foster.
The candidates also touched on the pollution found in the ground under the former Raytheon Corporation site in the Azalea neighborhood. Ford said she wanted to better understand what city officials knew about the pollution.
"I still haven't heard any city official say what they knew and when they knew it," Ford said. "I think that's awful, folks."
Foster said he is upset the city apparently has done little to collect monetary damages from the polluter. He said he is considering council ordinances that effectively would stick any future polluter with the cleanup bill.
The aesthetics of the night were noteworthy, if only because it was such a change from the crowded 10-candidate primary. The candidates stood at lecterns more than 10 feet apart and rarely made eye contact. There was no great explosion of emotion from either candidate.
Both, however, seemed to be caught off guard at times.
When Ford was asked, by Foster, what two things she was most proud of while on City Council, Ford stuttered at first.
"Hmmmmm. I'm trying to think of the first one I really liked the most," Ford started. After several seconds she talked about helping make broadband technology available in the city and seeking an outside opinion related to financial lending strategies the city was employing.
Earlier, Kriseman pressed Foster to pledge to support domestic partner benefits for all city employees. Foster would not take the pledge, saying that in lean budget years the city should be looking to cut, not expand, programs. Ford said she supports adding domestic partner benefits for city employees.
Aaron Sharockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2273.