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    Festival controversy weighs on mayor

    Vowing he won't resign, Bob Jackson hopes instead to ease bruised commissioner feelings over the conflict.

    By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 3, 2002


    LARGO -- With bags below his eyes, Mayor Bob Jackson clutched two memos hinting he should offer his resignation.

    Since testifying Monday afternoon that Largo could accommodate the Bay Area Renaissance Festival, Jackson has faced the wrath of the City Commission.

    Five of his colleagues have turned on him this week in what was shaping up to be the most troubled chapter in his 27 years of politics.

    Jackson has not slept much this week. The whispers have hurt. But don't expect him to turn from their vituperation.

    "They did not elect me," said Jackson. "I have a strong belief that if I'm wrong, I will pay the price. And if not, it will all come out."

    His actions in court set off a crisis at City Hall that one former commissioner Jim Miles called the worst he remembers in more than a dozen years.

    Critics say Jackson has developed a reputation for doing things his way, regardless of the direction taken by the commission.

    Last year he continued negotiating with a developer, even after the commission voted against the builder's proposal for apartments on the old City Hall property.

    Before the commission voted on building a $22-million library, Jackson forgot to mention that he was unable to secure $3-million in federal aid they depended on.

    Now the Renaissance Festival.

    Last month the commission voted 5-2 to end the 23-year partnership with the festival in Largo.

    Jackson dissented. Since then, he's criticized the commission's decision.

    Commissioners are upset that he sat behind the attorney for the festival in the courtroom, passed her notes and later was seen walking out with her. Then came the letter from festival owner Jim Peterson, thanking Jackson for his cooperation.

    "I am outraged by all that Mr. Peterson's letter infers," wrote Marty Shelby in a memo to commissioners Thursday. "Sadly, anything the Mayor could say past this point is too little, too late."

    Pat Burke sent a letter directly to Jackson.

    "If the roles were reversed and the City Manager had acted in a manner that was helpful and supportive to the other side, you would have been asking for his resignation last night," she wrote. "As for the letter to you from Jim Peterson, there is no doubt left as to what happened."

    Thursday, a judge ruled that the festival could stay on the property for the time being as the judge contemplates whether the commission had the right to sever the contract.

    Jackson had been a commissioner before becoming mayor in 2000. What did they expect, he asked, that he would toss out his opinion just because he sits in the chair in the center of the dais?

    "To a certain extent, you are not an individual," he said. "Perhaps that's a little unrealistic for someone who has been a commissioner as long as I have.

    "I was elected based on my record as a commissioner, and for the things I stood for. You can't stand for things as a commissioner and then say I no longer believe in that as mayor."

    A defiant Jackson sounded off from his home on Thursday after receiving dozens of calls from supporters.

    "He didn't do anything that was incorrect," said Warren Andrews, a Largo mayor in the 1970s who offered Jackson encouraging words Thursday. "If he had tried to conceal the truth, that would have been worse. As I understand, the crux of the difficulty is that he was asked a simple question."

    Jim Miles said the mayor should be able to recover, but that he must exercise his role as a leader immediately.

    "I think they would love to fall in line and be a part of his team," said Miles, who ran against Jackson in 2000. "But so far Bob has not exhibited the leadership to make them part of the team, and I think he needs to pick up now and this will pass."

    Jackson intends to return Tuesday night when the commission meets next and restore order, to the best of his ability. He has apologized for letting the commission down and said he intends to offer another apology next week.

    But he has no intention of stepping down.

    "It's going to be a battle to get back, but life goes on," he said. "I love government. I love the interaction. I would not deliberately undermine the people's support."

    -- Michael Sandler can be reached at 445-4174 or sandler@sptimes.com.

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