Mayor Foster finds himself on the defensive during televised debate in St. Pete

08/07/13 Janelle Irwin
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Three St. Pete mayoral hopefuls took jabs at one another Tuesday night during a debate in downtown. Former City Council member Kathleen Ford, Mayor Bill Foster and former State Representative Rick Kriseman answered questions from both moderators and residents during the one hour televised discussion. One issued centered on a statement made by Foster yesterday admitting that the Rays may need to look at Hillsborough County for a new stadium site. Foster responded to his change in position during the debate.

“I’m very solid on our legal position if the sole objective was to keep the Rays here through 2027. What is the objective after that? I guarantee if we do that, there will be no Tampa Bay Rays in 2028. So, if our objective is to get a longer term commitment for the region, those are the kinds of conversations I’ve been having with the Rays.”

Both Ford and Kriseman criticized the Mayor for changing his position, while Kriseman agreed the Rays are a regional asset. Another hot issue surrounding this race is what will happen with the city’s Pier. Kriseman criticized both opponents for their handling of the fate of the new design known as the Lens.

”Mrs. Ford has been very consistent on this issue, but I believe she’s been consistently wrong in talking about taking tax payer dollars and putting them into a structure that just doesn’t last. Mr. Foster has become an expert on this issue and it’s because he’s taken all sides of the issue so I think he understands both sides of it.”

After a massive petition drive by a group called Concerned Citizens, city council approved a referendum for this month’s ballot that asks whether or not the city should cancel its contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture. If voters say "No," the Lens gets built – "Yes," and it’s back to the drawing board. Kathleen Ford had unsuccessfully sued the city for a similar measure, but her proposal did not meet the criteria set out in the city charter. Foster had come out in support of a referendum, but Ford criticized him for not using his position to do more. Foster shot back that that wasn’t an option.

”If I were king for a day, I would have given myself the charter ability to put that on the ballot, but under this charter, the Mayor does not have that ability.”

Another issue facing candidates is pressure from the African-American community to revitalize the Midtown area where most residents are minority and low income. The topic gained traction after the area’s only grocery store closed. Ford said efforts to ramp up development in the community need to focus on long term goals.

”Certainly we need to be looking at jobs training and really building on those institutions that are already there. We’ve got the St. Pete housing authority has significant investment in Midtown and of course we’re excited about St. Pete College’s new campus that’s going to be going in the Midtown area, but we really do need a grocery store and we need to be very cognizant of the decisions we make elsewhere; for example, allowing Wal-Mart to go not too far from where Midtown is – what impact that will have on the success of the grocery store that is actually in Midtown.”

Ford also bashed Foster for closing down a grant program that helped neighborhoods like those in Midtown. But Foster claimed the programs in place are good enough.

”Federal funds, state funds have dried up, but we used neighborhood stabilization funds and areas of greatest need that we could create affordable housing, blight removal and I’ve been studying this study of poverty and the impact it has on the community, but I think that once we break ground on with St. Pete College … once we open the Manhattan Casino…”

The debate over how to improve the Midtown area has also turned into a race issue. Both the NAACP local chapter and the St. Pete-based Uhuru movement have blasted the St. Petersburg Police Department for disproportionately targeting minorities in the Midtown area; citing car chases and police shootings. Kriseman has been reaching out to the community and come out in support of transitioning toward community policing in those areas as well as removing police officers from some schools to cut back on excessive arrests.

”If we’re going to bring our community together to be able to solve problems, we can’t be divided by geographical boundaries. Central Avenue and 34th Street cannot be these boundaries that exist. So, if we’re going to be doing it we need to be creating jobs in midtown, we need to be improving the schools there, we need to be making the community safer and the neighborhoods in Midtown safer and that same focus on Midtown needs to be happening equally throughout the city.”

Candidates also answered questions regarding homelessness. Foster touted the opening of Pinellas Safe Harbor under his watch which gives people on the streets shelter and an alternative to arrest. Ford said more effort needs to be put into education and job assistance. But Kriseman said the current administration has not done enough to find outside money.

“One thing I haven’t seen under this administration is there hasn’t been a reach out beyond our borders to Washington, to Tallahassee to try to bring those revenues back to our community to help pay for the programs that we need to put in place so that we can do job training, so that we can do job training and so that we can do mental health counseling and so that we can do substance abuse counseling.”

Another candidate forum will be on August 15 at 6 p.m. at City Hall. The primary election is August 27 with a general election on November 5. Two other candidates will also be on the ballot, but were not invited to the debate Tuesday night – Paul Congemi and Anthony Cates.

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