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    Bayfront fiasco will be on our minds during March city elections

    By PHILIP GAILEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000


    I have about exhausted my interest in this year's state and federal elections and am already looking forward to next March, when St. Petersburg voters will elect a mayor and City Council members. I believe the Republic can survive either a Gore or Bush presidency, and Florida maybe another Republican Legislature in Tallahassee. But after the St. Petersburg City Council forced Bayfront Medical Center out of its protective alliance with the BayCare Health System last week, putting our primary hospital at risk, I am beginning to wonder how much longer we can afford a dysfunctional city government.

    Next year's city elections provide an opportunity for change, and we had better make the most of it if we care about this city's future. With the mayor's office and five council seats at stake, voters will have a chance to install responsible leadership in City Hall and elevate the civic discourse in our community, to replace nonsense with common sense and to restore confidence in the government closest to our lives. But that will happen only if good candidates step forward to run for council.

    The City Council, with its petty bickering, marathon meetings, narrow agendas and reckless policy decisions, has become more than just an embarrassment. It has become an obstacle to the city's progress. If ever there was a time for principled, competent people to offer themselves for elected office in this city, this is it. I can think of a half dozen names who could serve with distinction and make a positive contribution to our civic life. However, I can understand why they would want no part of it.

    For one thing, who would want to be part of a City Council that doesn't know when to stop talking or end a meeting? What should be a part-time job has become a full-time farce. Who can blame any successful person with the kind of experience and talents city government needs for not wanting to be associated with an elected body so lacking in competence, common purpose and civility? Or with the likes of Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster, a tag team that has led the attacks on Police Chief Goliath Davis and on Bayfront's entanglement with Catholic hospitals? Even some of the more responsible council members (I can think of maybe one or two in this category) resent the damage Ford has done to the council's public image. Unfortunately, she has had a strong supporting cast.

    It's too early to know what our choices for council will be, but the race for mayor is shaping up as a crowded field. Ford is leaving her council seat to run for mayor, as is Larry Williams, the only council member who opposed the legal and political assault on Bayfront. Mayor David Fischer is expected to announce for another term after the Nov. 7 election in which his wife, Margo, is seeking to regain the state House seat she lost to Republican Frank Farkas two years ago. Among the other candidates planning to run are Karl Nurse, a neighborhood activist and former chairman of the City Planning Commission, and Rick Baker, a prominent St. Petersburg attorney and civic leader who could prove to be Fischer's most formidable challenger.

    For his part, Fischer has some explaining to do about his role in the Bayfront fiasco. From the start the mayor sided with the council in demanding that Bayfront end its entanglement with the Catholic hospitals in BayCare at any cost. The alliance has saved the financially struggling Bayfront, the primary provider of medical care for the poor ($15-million worth this year) in this city, more than $10-million in three years. But the mayor and the council took the position that consequences be damned, Bayfront had to end its affiliation with the Catholic hospitals. The issue that ignited the controversy was Bayfront's decision to eliminate a handful of elective abortions to comport with Catholic religious and ethical directives.

    Bayfront's entanglement with the Catholic church was a legitimate concern, but rather than make a good-faith effort to negotiate a settlement, the city filed a lawsuit to force Bayfront out of the alliance. It hired outside lawyers at a cost of almost $500,000 to handle the case and spurned an offer by Bayfront to buy the property on which the hospital sits for $47-million, which would have resolved any church-state issue. Fischer agreed to the sale, but he was unable to persuade the council. At the very least, the mayor should have done more to keep the lawyers at bay until the effort at mediation was exhausted.

    Bayfront now faces an uncertain future. It will need taxpayer support if it is to continue to serve the poor and maintain the quality of care that we have come to take for granted. Bayfront's situation could be even worse than it appears, depending on what moves BayCare makes to strengthen St. Anthony's and to find new hospital partners in this area. The Bayfront fiasco should be an issue in the city election. It is just the latest -- and maybe worst -- example of what is wrong in City Hall.

    Correction

    In last Sunday's column I gave an incorrect first name for Al Gore's top campaign strategist. His name is Carter Eskew.

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