ST. PETERSBURG — When the city was his to run, Mayor Bill Foster's plans for St. Petersburg were detailed on dry-erase boards in his office.
The day after his defeat on Nov. 5, Foster wiped the boards clean, four years worth of plans, goals and hopes erased in seconds.
“I equate it to sitting at the back row of your funeral,” he said of his election defeat. “Everyone was so nice and eulogized about the things we have done.”
After four sometimes turbulent years in office, Foster quietly will walk away from City Hall Thursday, shortly before Mayor Elect Rick Kriseman is sworn in at noon.
The first incumbent mayor to lose office since the city adopted the strong mayor system in 1993, Foster's critics say his defeat was the result of poor leadership that led to stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays over playing at Tropicana Field, and the debacle of the city's pier being closed just before voters rejected its proposed replacement.
But even in one term, Foster has left his mark on the city through his stewardship of the city's finances during the recession and in alleviating panhandling and homelessness on city streets, observers say.
“His most important achievement was the progress we made with the homeless,” City Council Chairman Karl Nurse said. “He played a significant role in ramping up locations where people could go and in cooperative funding, which resulted in fewer homeless folks on our streets.”
Motivation for that came from his first day in office in January 2010. Temperatures were heading down to the 30s when he finished work. Outside City Hall, hundreds of homeless people bunked down for the night on Fifth Avenue North and Second Street North.
Seeing that, it hit him that the burden of running the city was his, he said.
“I saw I had to do something,” he said. “Out of that nugget ultimately came Pinellas Safe Harbor.”
Foster worked closely with Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gaultieri to get funding from 12 cities and the county to open Pinellas Safe Harbor, which provides shelter for 300 homeless every night.
He also pushed through an ordinance that outlawed panhandling. Not all of the measures was popular with homeless advocates, but ridding the streets of panhandlers, particularly in downtown area, was welcomed by many residents.
A fiscal conservative, Foster led the city through the recession and real estate slump that saw its annual property tax revenue fall by $35 million, said Jay Lasita, a former city council member.
“It was a rough economy that pervaded most of his tenure,” Lasita said. “That really precluded anything expansive he might have liked to have done. In my mind, he was generally very smart, and proficient fiscal stewardship is one legacy you could lay at his feet.”
Not everyone agrees. City council members, six of whom endorsed Kriseman in the election, complained that Foster cut funding for neighborhoods and the city's already anemic marketing budget at a time when the city needed to attract new jobs.
“I frankly think that the budget cuts that were in economic development were shortsighted,” Nurse said. “When business is soft, you don't reduce your sales effort and we cut ours in half during the recession.”
Foster remains adamant that he was right to curb spending and that he was able to get the city through the recession without layoffs.
“I was really tight with the people's money and I'm proud of that,” he said.
The gravest test of his leadership, Foster said, came in early 2011 when three city police officers were killed in a four-week period - the first officers killed in the line of duty in more than 20 years. Foster knew all three men. “These were personal losses,” Foster said. “It was the darkest period of my time as mayor.”
He also had to deal with outrage over the refusal of Goliath Davis III, then one of his top officials and a leader of the black community, to attend the funerals of the slain officers. Foster fired Davis.
“The outpouring of support from the public was probably greater than for any other decision I made,” he said.
But there was blow back, too. During the election, Davis blasted Foster's leadership and campaigned for Kriseman.
Foster's least popular decision may have been to close the city's pier despite the likelihood that the proposed replacement would be rejected in a referendum, as it was. Opponents in the primary and general election seized upon the issue as evidence of poor leadership.
In hindsight, Foster said he could have delayed a decision on the pier until after the election.
“Rick Baker was the master of putting things over to another term; he had political savvy I didn't,” Foster said. “I didn't make decisions based on how it would affect my re-electability; perhaps I should have.”
Foster's single term in office means he likely will not be regarded as one of the city's great mayors, said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government and Florida politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He said Foster was held back by his inability to build coalitions with all of the city council and with the black community.
“Given the short time frame he had, he was more of a caretaker than a policymaker,” Paulson said “He never was able to convince them that what he wanted to do was in the best interests of the city.”
Shortly after leaving office, Foster will return to practicing law at a Vero Beach law firm owned by a long-time friend.
Except for a few family photos, he already has cleaned out his office. As mayor, he was regularly presented with plaques and recognition awards. Not comfortable touting his achievements, Foster threw away most of them. The rest will end up in a box his children will have to deal with when he's dead, he said.
All that was left on his desk for his last few weeks was his nameplate, a bible and a Daily Devotion.
“I don't believe in having a shrine to one's self,” he said.
After taking only two weeks of vacation in four years, the 50-year-old mayor took some time off during his last few weeks in office. He does not plan to attend Kriseman's swearing-in ceremony, but on that morning plans one last trip to the mayor's office to claim his nameplate as a memento.
He remains proud of what he and city workers achieved over the past four years, but is ready for his next challenge.
“It's like turning a page on a good book,” he said. “You ponder what you've read in your heart but you can't wait for the next page.”