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City to pay for travel to Japan

Council members Earnest Williams and Bill Foster will use their city travel funds for the August trip.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 6, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It took a couple of steps, but the result was simple: a taxpayer-financed trip to Japan for St. Petersburg City Council members Earnest Williams and Bill Foster.

The council passed two resolutions Tuesday. The first added a goal to the mission of the little-known St. Petersburg International Relations Committee, a citizen volunteer board that oversees St. Petersburg's "sister city" relationship with Takamatsu, Japan: to "foster economic development through commerce between the city of St. Petersburg and cities in other nations."

The resolution passed 5-0 with three members, including Foster, absent. Then the council immediately approved another resolution to make "the expenditure of city funds for the purpose of travel to Takamatsu, Japan, in furtherance of the goals of the International Relations Committee" a "valid public purpose."

For the trip, Foster and Williams each plan to spend more than $2,000 of the $5,000 yearly budget each is allotted for traveling on city business. Foster said he will serve as the "head of the delegation," in lieu of Mayor Rick Baker, who will not make the trip.

Williams, who voted for the trip, said he wants to go to Japan to pursue economic development opportunities. He wrote a letter to Shozo Masuda, the Takamatsu mayor, requesting an appointment to discuss expanding the cities' 40-year cultural exchange.

"We've had this wonderful relationship for the last 40 years with our sister city," Williams said. "We need to move it up to another level."

Williams said he knows there is a tractor factory in Takamatsu, and he said it or another Japanese firm might be coaxed into opening a factory or office in St. Petersburg, maybe in the Dome Industrial Park the city is now assembling.

Foster said he feels a duty to make the trip to honor the invitation Masuda extended during a visit to St. Petersburg in 1999. Then-Mayor David Fischer committed to visit, Foster said, but Mayor Rick Baker said he is too busy to go.

"Baker decided he wouldn't go, and he kind of appointed me as head of the delegation," Foster said.

"I absolutely think there's a legitimate use of city funds," Foster said. "We were faced with a commitment not only of this committee but of David Fischer directly to Mayor Masuda to go."

Council members have paid their own way in the past, but Foster said he could not make the trip without being able to spend from his council travel budget.

City staff member Virginia Rowell, the city's manager of social service programs, will also go on the trip Aug. 8-15. The sister city program has prompted the two cities to exchange students and visiting delegations over its 40-year life, she said.

"All of those individuals have worked very diligently over the years in strengthening the relationship to one of mutual respect, and certainly there's a great deal of cultural exchange," Rowell said. "I would just hope that that would deepen" during the August trip.

A 15-member baseball team from the Fossil Park youth baseball league will go along to Takamatsu to play against local youths.

But the city will not pay the tab for team members: They and their parents and coaches are working hard at a golf tournament, a charity softball game and other projects to raise $38,000 needed to fund the trip, said Mike Rees, who is helping coordinate the effort.

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