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Thursday, Aug 16, 2018
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Political tensions grow between Foster, St. Pete council

ST. PETERSBURG — When it comes to finding support, the dais at City Hall is a pretty lonely place for Mayor Bill Foster. Six of the eight members of City Council have endorsed Foster’s opponents in the mayoral election. None have so far backed him.

Fallout from that “vote of no confidence” seems to be spilling over into City Council meetings.

During an acrimonious budget hearing last week, several council members blasted Foster for ignoring their funding requests in his budget, while Foster likened their complaints to whining. With relations between the mayor and the council souring, it may become increasingly difficult for the city to get much business done until after the Nov. 5 election, said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse.

“I think it’s clear the campaign is getting in the way of trying to do our jobs,” said Nurse, who endorsed Foster’s opponent, Rick Kriseman, just days before the primary election. “I think it will be difficult to get work done.”

There have been exceptions, but City Council members have largely refrained from making mayoral endorsements since the city adopted the strong-mayor form of government in 1993, said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government and Florida politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

That is why Councilman Jim Kennedy said he has not backed anyone in the mayor’s race.

“It doesn’t do the city well when people let personal opinions and objections get in the way of conducting city business,” Kennedy said.

But endorsements have become more common in recent years, another sign of how politicized the nonpartisan race is becoming, Paulson said.

Three Democratic council members — Charlie Gerdes, Steve Kornell and Nurse — have endorsed Kriseman, a former Democratic state lawmaker. He has also been endorsed by Republican Leslie Curran and independent Jeff Danner. Wengay Newton, who backed Kathleen Ford in the primary, has yet to back a candidate in the runoff election.

“I don’t remember any St. Pete race where you had five members of the council coming out and endorsing somebody and certainly endorsing the mayor’s opponent,” said Paulson, “Some of the endorsements are partisan-related, no question about it.”

Danner and Curran are term-limited and would not have to work with Foster if he defeats Kriseman. But ill feelings between Foster and Kriseman’s other supporters on the council could continue if he gets a second term, Paulson said.

“It’s hard to imagine how cordial the relationships will be and how effective City Council will be when you have such acrimonious relations,” Paulson said. “Politicians are like elephants: They never forget.”

Relations between Foster and several council members were fraught during Thursday’s five-hour meeting where the City Council initially voted down Foster’s budget because it did not include additional funding for projects such as the Central Avenue Revitalization Project.

“I’ve done this for 16 years, and the last three have been the most frustrating,” Curran said.

Foster accused some council members of making campaign speeches and said he was not surprised by the backing that Kriseman has received. He said his opponent’s supporters share a common political philosophy, although he declined to elaborate further.

“Being a steward of taxpayer money and things having been as tight as they have been, I have not been able to agree with the numerous requests of council members as perhaps has occurred in the past,” he said.

The losers from the fallout on Thursday was the People’s Budget Review, a coalition of union members and neighborhood associations and other groups who brought close to 300 people to the meeting to call for extra funding for youth training and to tackle poverty in South St. Petersburg.

The City Council was unable to agree how to pay for the extra spending, although some of the programs may be added before the council gives final approval to the budget on Sept. 26.

“It was frustrating for anyone to sit in that room and watch the dysfunctional nature of the council,” said Rick Smith, one of the founders of the group. “There were people there using old political grudgers to torpedo any decisive action on that night.”

The City Council is unlikely to introduce any new programs before the election but will approve Foster’s budget, Nurse said, By law, it must approve a balanced budget by Oct. 1.

“We have to pass a budget and that will happen next week regardless,” said Nurse. “I am hopeful in November we can get started on a number of new items.”

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