1. Opinion

St. Petersburg's small town insecurities

Published Mar. 2, 2012

They organized quickly and challenged authority. They invoked civic pride and complained of broken promises. With lightning speed, they forced a big bureaucracy to reverse itself and declared victory.

St. Petersburg's postmark has been saved.

Who says City Hall can't get anything done?

Truth be told, a Postal Service spokeswoman probably misspoke when she said St. Petersburg would lose its postmark after the city's mail processing center closes and mail is routed through the Tampa distribution center. But never mind. Rallying to save it were Mayor Bill Foster, former Mayor Rick Baker, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and Leadership St. Petersburg. Of course, what probably really saved the day was a well-placed letter to the postmaster general by U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.

But let the mayor have his moment. It's fine for St. Petersburg to keep its postmark, and Foster needs an accomplishment on his re-election brochures beyond persuading the national baseball teams for Canada and the Netherlands to play at Al Lang Field. Plenty of good seats still available.

The postmark panic tapped into City Hall's deep-seated insecurities about St. Petersburg's identity. Its leaders are too often quick to feel slighted, slow to think big and wary of looking beyond the city limits.

Foster is Exhibit A.

Halfway through his term, he has led on little of significance beyond replacing the Pier. He's secretive, and he seems suspicious of anyone whose family hasn't lived in St. Petersburg for generations. He's a probate lawyer who is quicker to threaten lawsuits than collaborate on creative solutions to public issues.

A new baseball stadium? There's been no progress under Foster because he keeps threatening to sue if the Rays study sites in Hillsborough as well as Pinellas County. Never mind that the Rays are a regional franchise, play in outdated Tropicana Field and certainly won't be calling the Trop home when the lease expires in 2027. It's nice that the mayor will help sell a few tickets, but threatening lawsuits is not a long-term strategy. And we're still waiting on his secret plan.

Emergency Medical Services? County Administrator Bob LaSala tried to develop a regional solution for EMS, which is too expensive and running a deficit. Foster was uncooperative and threatened to sue, preferring to side with the city firefighters' union and their hefty pensions. The city has made noises about pulling out of the countywide system, and perhaps it is mere coincidence that the Foster administration is busy building or renovating fire stations.

Mass transit? There is a promising Pinellas plan to expand bus service and build a light rail line between downtown St. Petersburg and downtown Clearwater. This is the largest metro area in the country without a regional transit system. But you don't see St. Petersburg's mayor leading the charge the way former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio did in Hillsborough. Voters in Hillsborough defeated a transit plan in 2010, but most voters within the city of Tampa favored it.

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Public schools? Many of St. Petersburg's public schools are in decline, resegregated and struggling to close a yawning achievement gap between black and white students. It's a county school system, but when Baker was mayor he made it a high-profile priority to recruit mentors for students and raise money for the city's schools. Foster has struggled to match that effort.

Since he doesn't claim to be a vision guy, perhaps the mayor deserves a break on the big stuff. Maybe he does better sweating the small stuff.

Let's see. Foster chased most of the panhandlers out of St. Petersburg and over to Tampa largely by trampling their constitutional rights. He raised parking fines, installed more meters and ordered the tire boot for repeat offenders. He let Progress Energy off the hook for much of the $147,0000 it owed the city in unpaid bills and fees. Now he's negotiating another cozy deal with the operator of Albert Whitted Airport, who hasn't been paying his bills on time.

Those small problems keep piling up at City Hall. Foster and the City Council were slow to figure out that if they let the bars stay open an hour longer, to 3 a.m., police costs were going to go up. They finally brought curbside recycling, but the system appears designed to fail. And while Tampa and other cities nationwide embrace the food truck craze, the St. Petersburg mayor and the City Council can't figure out how to accommodate both food trucks and restaurants.

Foster ought to mail a letter to Washington and ask Bill Young for more help. It will be in the envelope with the St. Petersburg postmark.