Under Mayor Bill Foster, St. Petersburg has been treading water for nearly four years. The city faces no major crises, crime rates remain low and the economy is recovering. Yet the mayor's lack of vision and unsure footing in key areas has resulted in stagnation and missed opportunities. For voters seeking a fresh start and stronger leadership, the only viable alternative is Rick Kriseman.
Kriseman, 51, is a trial lawyer with the experience and creativity to lead the city. He has served as a member of the St. Petersburg City Council and the Legislature, and he has developed a reputation as being progressive on public policy and persuasive in advocating his positions. He is as comfortable talking with neighborhood associations as he is with City Council members and legislators, and his familiarity with both local and state government would be an asset.
As a City Council member between 2000 and 2006, Kriseman was a stabilizing influence who worked well with Mayor Rick Baker. He helped sell to homeowners associations a plan by Baker and St. Petersburg College to build a joint-use public library. He was the deciding vote in Baker's move to sell city property in Hernando County to the Southwest Florida Water Management District after receiving stronger assurances the land would be preserved. Kriseman also was an advocate for open government, leading the effort to stream council meetings live on the Internet.
As a state House member between 2006 and 2012, Kriseman often focused on environmental efforts and public education. He fought for tax reform and open government, and against Republican efforts to pack the courts with conservatives and make it harder for consumers to sue. Kriseman has been criticized by Republicans as being too partisan in Tallahassee. But there were few opportunities for a Democrat in a chamber firmly controlled by Republicans to reach a bipartisan compromise, and Kriseman became an articulate spokesman for the minority party.
Kriseman would bring new energy to the mayor's office. He would negotiate with the Tampa Bay Rays about allowing the franchise to explore potential stadium sites in Tampa while protecting St. Petersburg's financial interests and trying to boost attendance at Tropicana Field. He has an ambitious schedule for appointing a new task force and designing a new pier if voters cancel the architect's contract for the proposed Lens. And he would enthusiastically promote a 2014 countywide referendum that would improve mass transit and open new possibilities for economic development for St. Petersburg.
In areas from permitting to marketing, Kriseman would improve city services. He sees an opportunity to remake the police department by hiring a new chief, starting construction on a new police headquarters, adjusting an aggressive chase policy embraced by Foster and improving the way officers patrol neighborhoods. He pledges that St. Petersburg finally will get universal curbside recycling and that it will be affordable. Kriseman also would focus on neighborhoods, from more aggressive code enforcement to re-establishing small neighborhood grants.
Kathleen Ford, 56, is running for mayor a third time after previously losing to Baker and Foster in general elections. The former City Council member has not improved as a candidate, has few new ideas and remains a divisive figure. Her temperament was on full display during last week's Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 debate as she attacked Kriseman on petty issues that had nothing to do with policy.
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Ford is riding the wave of opposition to the Lens project that would replace the existing Pier. She wants to renovate the inverted pyramid, which is not a financially viable option. The lawyer's attempt to name thousands of city voters as plaintiffs in a lawsuit over a pier referendum should tell voters plenty about her poor judgment.
Four years ago, we recommended Foster as the best choice in a crowded field of candidates to succeed Baker. While he offered no sweeping vision, the former City Council member was well-versed in the issues. He has deep roots in the community and was best positioned to defeat Ford in the general election. Yet in several ways, Foster has been a disappointment.
The controversy over the Lens project could have been avoided with strong, clear leadership from the mayor. Negotiations with the Rays would be farther along if Foster had not wasted three years refusing to discuss the franchise's request to look at potential stadium sites in Hillsborough County. Foster reconsidered only after he was pressured by the Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissions and the St. Petersburg City Council to break the stalemate.
Foster, 50, faced a particular challenge at the outset of his term: an economic recession that caused tax revenues to plunge and forced millions of dollars in spending cuts. St. Petersburg came out reasonably well and avoided some of the pain experienced by other cities. At the same time, momentum was lost in redeveloping Midtown, improving public schools and strengthening neighborhoods.
Over the last few months, Foster has taken some positive steps. He negotiated with the Rays, opened a business assistance center and refocused on partnerships to improve public schools. He improved his contentious relationship with Pinellas County officials, and he worked harder at developing consensus rather than threatening lawsuits. Voters have to decide whether the mayor's recent performance is more reflective of his potential in a second term than his uninspiring work in his first three years in office.
Foster likely will be among the top two finishers in the primary and advance to the November general election. The challenge for voters is selecting an alternative who offers more than the status quo, and there is only one responsible choice. In the Aug. 27 primary for St. Petersburg mayor, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Rick Kriseman.