Bill Foster’s ‘Mayor’s Night Out’ offers access, but not much transparency

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The most recent Mayor’s Night Out, hosted January 12, 2012 at the J.W. Cate Center provided unparalleled access to many departments represented by City Hall. Mayor Bill Foster promotes these events as an effort to improve access and transparency regarding city government. Indeed, bringing leadership representing many city departments out to the community provides extraordinary access, but I’m not so sure transparency is increased much. Not yet.

There are certain political buzz words that provide a sense of comfort among citizens. One of these is “transparency.” It’s a great word. It gives a sense of accountability—of a government laying all of its cards on the table for all to see everything exactly as they are. There would be no airbrushing and nothing hidden in a corner. Everything would be wide open for all to see. And with the Mayor’s Night Out events, that isn’t something I experienced there.

What these events do provide is fabulous access to Mayor Foster, to City Council, and many city departments were represented including Billing and Collections; Engineering, Water Resources and Capital Improvements; Housing and Community Development; School Programs; Police; Fire Rescue; Sanitation, Storm Water, Pavement and Traffic Operations; Zoning and Permitting; Transportation and Parking; Codes Compliance; Neighborhood Partnership, Libraries, Parks and Recreation; and Codes Compliance.

What I was tickled by was the lack of popularity generated by the Billing and Collections Department station. Tickled and fascinated, but upon talking to this representative, I learned that she has been present in several of these public events, and she rarely sees much traffic. However, she is fully equipped with a laptop and remote access to the department to address any concerns individuals may have with Billing and Collections, including individual’s accounts and issues. Job well-done!  There were, however, several community members interested in the Engineering, Water Resources and Capital Improvement Department. I learned that main priorities this department has on the table concern water conservation and moving from gas and diesel fuels to electric and hydrogen alternatives.

The Housing and Community Development Department receives much criticism by the public who wants to see more affordable housing options, especially in this national economic downturn that has not left St. Petersburg unscarred. So, I stopped by and had a brief chat with Director of Housing and Community Development Joshua Johnson.

I am pleased to report that the City of St. Petersburg truly is doing much to address the affordable housing concerns. From securing funding to build green, upscale affordable apartments such as The Portland along with constructing several other buildings to working with community organizations to rebuild and develop many existing buildings in the city to revitalize areas of the city with affordable housing options. Yet, with times as tough as they are and families and individuals struggling as hard as they are, even this great work still seems so insufficient. The city does have more projects on the drawing board, and local organizations such as Boley Centers still have their funding applications into HUD awaiting funding procurement to provide even more affordable housing options in the city, so hope is not lost, it’s just weary.

School programs in the City of St. Petersburg boast great outcomes, and this truly is good news. Between the Doorways program to the Mayor’s Mentors program working hand-in-hand with youth, schools and parents, St. Petersburg high schools have a 94 percent graduation rate in 2010. Compared to the 68.8 percent graduation rate reported nationally, St. Petersburg has a right to be proud. (National scores are from 2007, the last year data has been collected by Editorial Projects in Education Center Research.) “Kids are most successful when we identify their needs early,” says St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster. “We like to make sure we give them as much support as possible by the sixth grade to help ensure their success throughout the rest of their school years.” The next sign-up session for the Doorway program is Wednesday, May 6, 2012.

While graduation rates are relatively high, youth violence is a critical issue in both the schools and for the St. Petersburg Police Department. While the overall crime rate is at a remarkable low of seven percent, youth violence is at the top of everyone’s list regarding crime-stopping and increasing safety for the city. The City Council also has prioritized the construction of a new police headquarters as a primary safety issue. According to St. Petersburg Police Chief Harmon, “Headquarters does need a new building, though I don’t think I’ll be around when it actually happens.” Harmon states that among the biggest concerns are the actual structure being able to sustain a direct hurricane, the need for a building that is designed to protect critical technology, especially during a disaster and a parking garage that will protect emergency vehicles so that they are operable following a disaster.

I encourage the citizens of St. Petersburg to frequently attend these Mayor’s Night Out events, where City Hall genuinely is well-represented and available to answer questions and hear concerns. It is indeed a powerful vessel to increase access to the community. As far as transparency is concerned—this venue may not provide too much additional transparency yet. However, I believe that this truly is Mayor Foster’s goal, though politicians and government workers are uniquely skilled at providing polished “blow-dried” answers to questions that leave true transparency a little darkened. I don’t put all of the fault on them—the politicians.

If the citizens of St. Petersburg truly want transparency, they must participate in it. The access is most certainly there in a fashion that cannot be criticized. What is needed for true transparency to be realized is for citizens to go to these events and demand answers to tough questions. Require follow-up and reporting on issues that are of the greatest concern to citizens from the city. The citizens of St. Petersburg must take an active leadership role as both a partner and critic of their local government for transparency to be a reality. Mayor Foster, the City Council and city departments have certainly put themselves out there—It’s up to us to make transparency happen.

— Daphne Taylor Street, SaintPetersBlog correspondent.  You may contact Daphne at dts.streetmedia@gmail.com.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.