Bill Foster speaks about transparency and the Rays stadium with St. Pete residents at "Mayor's Night Out"
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09/02/11 Atecia Robinson
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St. Petersburg's Mayor Bill Foster met last night with citizens who could speak face-to-face with city council members and the mayor about issues they want changed.

In a gymnasium at the Frank Pierce Recreation Center, a handful of St. Pete residents voiced their opinions to a number of city employees. Robert Danielson, St. Petersburg’s manager of communications, said one of Mayor Foster’s initiatives was to bring government to the people.

“When the mayor was first elected this is one of his initial initiatives was to bring government to the people, so every month we travel from district to district and tonight we’re in district six. I think the low turnout tonight it due to the weather.”

Officials from each city department sat at tables around the perimeter of the gym. David Dickerson, the operations manager for Codes and Compliance, was one of the officials there to offer information to the public. He said a major problem the city was facing was overgrowth, but his department was in the process of enacting plans to correct the problem.

“Well we have a pretty good program setup where we notify the ownership of the violation and if they don’t cure the violation within a certain time frame, the city has a program setup where we actually go out and take care of the lawn and then we charge that cost back to the owner.”

Ojaha Maharaja, the manager from the City Hall Business Assistance Center, spoke to a young man about getting his construction business off the ground.

“We provide a host of training and counseling at the Business Assistance Center. We have special classes like how to write a business plan, marketing, social media and bonding, so it’s a whole array of classes. In his case in particular – he’s in the construction business. So what we do also is we certify small businesses to procure contracts with the city of St. Pete. So I was now going to get into him because he has some skill sets that probably he can come to the BAC to see how he can use that to get into the construction area.”

Mayor Foster said he would continue holding these meeting even if only one or two people showed up. He said he hopes these meetings bring results to the challenges St. Petersburg is facing.

“Well I’m all about performance and results and I think any mayor should be judged on the accountability and accessibility and results and so I try and get out into the community. We are bringing through “Mayors Night Out” every department head, every chief of all the services that we provide, out to the people, where the people are and I think that’s important so if people wanted an opportunity to meet the mayor and have a conversation on-one-one, they get that opportunity here. If it’s a police issue, the chief of police is here, fire, codes, construction and permitting, libraries, parks and recreation, sanitation, water resources the list goes on and on. The department heads, the decision makers are here under one roof where the people are, so I think it is important we get out of city hall one a month, we get out of the municipal service building and bring the services to the people.”

David Hoover, from the Riviera Bay Civic Association took advantage of the opportunity to talk to his city staff.

“Removing of snape signs was one of them and the continuation of Pinellas Trail out of Vista Park and continuing onto Gandy Blvd. - a drainage issue in the neighborhood that I addressed with Mike Connors, that’s what’s really good about these nights is you can talk directly to the director of the department and you don’t have to go through a secretary and you don’t have to worry about the message getting across differently from how you want it to get across.”

One community leader, Mattie Wright had concerns regarding her neighborhood watch program and an issue that citizens have been debating - whether the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team will continue their contract and stay in St. Petersburg.

“Well I wanted to talk to the mayor about the stadium and I wanted to talk about the vagrancy and the people that’s wandering my neighborhood because I got one, she constantly harasses me. So you know I called the police, I didn’t get a good response so they say they gonna find out who that was that responded to me like she did.”

Wright said she loved attending “Mayors Night Out” meetings because it allowed her to get many of her questions answered on the spot.

“I did, I asked him was it feasible, could the next mayor break the contract, you know the 2007 contract with The Rays, he said the council could do it – but the five of them agree with him, so that’s the majority of the council and then I asked him would it be feasible to put the open air ballpark adjacent to the Trop. He said yeah, that’s a good idea.

"If not there can we put it on a Gateway area because the traffic is terrible coming from Largo and Clearwater and Tampa to the Trop in St. Pete. He said you think just like I do. He said the players don’t want to go like that - they want to move it out of the city all together. I said they must not be from here. He said they ain’t, most them ain't from here, the owner isn’t; from here either. They don’t like us - I said we can find a way to make them like us.”

Foster said St. Petersburg has invested too much to allow the Rays to leave. He wants more fans to support the team at Tropicana Field.

“It was all outlined in a local newspaper and it’s really three-fold, it’s not a secret- it’s to promote this team and work arm-in-arm with Bob Buckhorn and other leaders in the Tampa Bay area to really drive support for this team here at the Trop. The second is to make sure that we are always accessible to The Rays and my door is always open to any need and challenges that our partners have with The Tampa Bays Rays, but really and truly it’s to make sure the people’s investment in Major League Baseball is protected.

"I think that’s the main thing that we need to do. We need to be prepared to negotiate, prepared to assist, prepared to promote- but we also need to make sure that the city’s interest is protected.”

In Foster’s 2009 campaign he touted his initiative to make city government more transparent. But last week, the St. Petersburg Times reported that at a “Breakfast with the Mayor” event, Mayor Foster said he would not answer residents’ questions in the presence of a reporter. But when WMNF asked about this discrepancy, Foster said he only wanted to protect the rights and privacy of the citizens.

“Well it was really out of respect for the citizens, it wasn’t a press conference, it wasn’t a town hall, it wasn’t an open meeting- it was an invitation for citizens – it was an opportunity to come and do my two favorite things, eat and talk to the mayor and tell me anything. Again, it’s part of being accessible to the people but I think a lot of our citizens that bring challenges to the mayor’s office, they don’t want to read about it in the newspaper and so they can be candid with me and I can be candid with them. I wanted to make sure there was no fear that it would be overheard by reporters and I do that out of respect for the people. I signed up for this, I signed up to be a public figure and some of the challenges that our residents have are very private and very personal – so I did it out of difference for the people in the community.”

When asked whether media coverage would help citizens get their voices heard and others on their side when it comes it decision making, Foster agreed.

*note: the audio here is an extended version of what we aired during the newscast.

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