ST. PETERSBURG — With a little more than a week before the primary election, candidates hoping to be the city’s next mayor are winding up their get-out-the-vote efforts as they make their final push for City Hall’s top job.
The main challengers for the job that pays roughly $158,000 per year are incumbent Bill Foster, former City Council member Kathleen Ford and Rick Kriseman, a former state lawmaker and City Council chairman.
At stake is who will lead the city as it emerges from the recession and tackles issues such as crime and high unemployment in its poorest neighborhoods, whether the city can keep the Tampa Bay Rays and what to do with the pier if voters reject the Lens.
No single issue has dominated the race, but the candidates, all attorneys by trade, have clashed on how to police the city and grow the city’s economy. The surprise issue of the election has been education, with candidates pledging to do what they can to improve St. Petersburg schools, even though they have no control over K-12 education.
Nonetheless, education is an issue many residents want a mayor to tackle because they fear failing schools will drive down property values, deter people and businesses from relocating here and lead to increases in crime, said Judithanne Scourfield-McLauchlan, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Of the county’s eight failing schools, five are in St. Petersburg.
“They have to come up with something, as the future of the city depends being able to improve schools and lift up those children,” she said. “That’s more of an issue to most people than the pier.”
Since Foster, 50, was elected in 2009, leadership of Pinellas County Schools has changed three times. Foster said he has built a good relationship with current Superintendent Michael Grego and recently launched St. Pete Promise in partnership with Pinellas County Schools and the Pinellas Education Foundation.
Through the program, Foster aims to increase the number of mentors working with children and make more scholarships available through donation matches from the foundation and the state.
“Failing schools in the City of St. Petersburg is the No. 1 challenge,” Foster said.
In debates, Ford has frequently highlighted how Pinellas County’s Early Learning Coalition this year was forced to return $2.4 million of federal and state money intended to help poor working families with child care that includes school readiness programs because the agency did not spend the money. That money could have been used to better prepare students for school, she said.
Ford, 56, would like the city to step in and use city recreation centers for pre-school education. Funding would come from state and county monies allocated for those programs, she said.
“Waiting until kids are ready for kindergarten to begin to intervene is wrong,” she said.
The county’s participation rate in the state’s voluntary prekindergarten, or VPK, program is already high, with about 80 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled in the program, said Janet Chapman, the Early Leaning Coalition’s CEO. Many of the children who do not enroll are home-schooled, attend private schools or are considered too young to attend school, Chapman said.
Kriseman, 51, also plans to boost mentoring programs. He said he would also advocate that the school district implement service learning, a community-service based approach aimed at getting students more engaged and positively involved in their community. That would improve grades and lower graduation rates, he said.
A 2006 study of service learning by The Case Foundation found that there is not a conclusive link to higher graduation rates but concluded that 75 percent of students said service learning classes were more interesting than their regular ones.
Disagreements over the city’s police department have centered on the use of community policing, pursuit policies and the leadership of Police Chief Chuck Harmon, with both Ford and Kriseman saying they would replace Harmon, who is scheduled to retire next year.
Kriseman and Ford have said they want to see more community policing, which they argue would drive down crime and make residents feel safer.
“I want to have a police chief who believes in community policing,” Ford said.
Foster claims his opponents do not understand modern community policing. The police department deploys officers in specialized units in high-crime areas, and reassigning those officers to regular neighborhood beats would not lower crime, he said.
The mayor has also touted falling crime numbers as proof of the police department’s approach.
Burglaries have fallen by 18 percent over the past five years. Violent crimes have also decreased by 15 percent over the same period.
“Community policing is alive and well in St. Petersburg,” Foster said.
Kriseman and Ford are also calling for a stricter policy on police pursuits, which have led to increased mistrust between the police and the black community, they say.
After being elected, Foster approved police pursuits in so-called forcible felonies, which typically include burglary suspects. Previously, pursuits were restricted to violent crimes.
Ford said Midtown residents have complained to her that officers have pursued suspects without using lights and sirens. Police officials said an internal investigation is taking place into an isolated incident but that, overall, the number of pursuits has not risen dramatically.
Building a new police station would be an opportunity to rebrand the department and improve community relations, Kriseman said.
“It’s one thing to have respect for the police, but there needs to be respect that goes back to the community,” he said.
Voters go to the polls on Aug. 27. Two other candidates — Paul Congemi, a 56-year-old songwriter, and Anthony Cates, a 23-year-old businessman — are also on the ballot but lag in the polls.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the two candidates with the most votes will meet in a runoff Nov. 5.
Where they stand
Here’s a quick look at where the candidates stand on several major issues.
Ford: Sued the city to force a public vote on renovating the inverted pyramid pier, opposes the Lens
Foster: Supports a public vote on the Lens but has said the Lens may be the most iconic design the city can get for its $34 million budget. Put together a group of stakeholders to consider how to move forward if voters reject the Lens
Kriseman: Opposes the Lens. Would appoint a task force to come up with a final design for a new pier within nine months of taking office with a target of completing construction by end of 2015
Ford: Says residents should have a vote before any taxpayer dollars are used to build a new stadium
Foster: Has insisted the team honor its contract to play at Tropicana Field through 2027. After pressure from other elected leaders, has reopened negotiations with the Rays and conceded the city might have to allow the Rays to explore sites in Tampa
Kriseman: Wants to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg but would allow the Rays to look at sites in Tampa, providing the team pays an exploration fee
Ford: Favors scrapping the cameras and lengthening yellow-light times to give drivers more time to get through intersections
Foster: Staunch supporter of the program that he says changes driver’s behavior and makes intersections safer
Kriseman: Supports using the cameras to curb dangerous driving but wants to make sure cities do not shorten yellow-light times to generate more revenue