For mayor, a week for mending fences
By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
LARGO -- Bubbling from months of suppressed animosity, Largo's City Commission exploded into name calling, a swirl of insulting memos and one written apology during a week like none any could remember at City Hall.
By Friday afternoon, the city of Largo's head was inverted, agape and spinning wildy out of control. Work had come to a standstill.
City Manager Steven Stanton is worried. The controversy set off by Mayor Bob Jackson's court testimony and perception of duplicitous behavior had become "all-consuming." The commission was "a community at war with itself."
All this as the commission awaits the rewards from investing nearly $15-million along West Bay Drive, the crux of the city's efforts at making downtown more attractive to prospective businesses.
"People who want to do business don't want to step in the middle of a gunfight," said Stanton. "It must be resolved."
This week is certain to be the most critical in Jackson's 27-year political career as he faces as many as five commissioners seething over his behavior. They are frustrated with a style for doing things his way -- regardless of the direction taken by the commission -- and for encouraging debate over consensus.
Yet Stanton said Jackson has the ability to recover. But to do that, he must be willing to overcome his instincts.
Stanton even accepted some responsibility for Jackson's behavior in court contradicting the city's position on the Bay Area Renaissance Festival, saying he should have prepared Jackson better for the witness stand.
Jackson's testimony last week saying the city could accommodate the festival set off the furor. 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 a letter from festival owner Jim Peterson, thanking Jackson for his cooperation.
On Friday, Jackson offered a written apology and plans to reiterate his regret Tuesday when the commission meets next. He also hopes people reserve judgment until after they've read his court testimony transcript.
"This whole situation has caused me great concern," he wrote. "I would hope that we could work together to accomplish all our goals for a City we all love."
Many say they have lost faith in Jackson's ability to lead. Some examples they point to include:
Negotiating with a developer after the commission voted against the builder's proposal for apartments on the old City Hall property.
Championing a $22-million library his colleagues supported without mentioning his inability to secure up to $3-million in federal aid they depended on.
Failing to restrain unruly residents who verbally attack commissioners at public meetings.
Pushing the city to reconsider keeping the Renaissance Festival for another year after his commission voted 5-2 that it could no longer be accommodated in Largo Central Park.
Even if he makes a conscious effort to change, some commissioners may be unwilling to overlook the damage behind him.
Commissioner Pat Burke has hinted he should resign.
Marty Shelby, by far his sharpest critic, fired off three memos last week that included absolute terms indicating a schism that cannot be overcome.
In his latest volley, Shelby included a speech he intends to give Tuesday accusing Jackson of jeopardizing taxpayers and the commission's "important plans for the future including, and probably very specifically, the new library."
Stanton said that is unlikely. The biggest obstacle is Jackson's academic background and the way it affects his voting pattern.
Jackson, 69, a retired teacher and principal, has a reputation for insisting all voices are heard on the dais, even when no one is contesting an issue. That, Stanton said, is an academic approach.
"Over the years, Bob has been comfortable in the role of the dissenter," said Stanton, "to the extent that, even if they are comfortable with the position he is advocating, he will pick up the torch for the other side. Not because he believes in it, but because he wants the public to know his is mindful. That's extremely frustrating."
Stanton said great mayors seek to find the center, even when they disagree. He said the late Thom Feaster, a popular mayor Jackson followed into office, often relented when the commission saw things another way.
"Thom never wanted to be on the end of a 6-1 vote," said Stanton.
He said the mayor's primary role means championing the commission's position even if you disagree with it.
Stanton has faith in Jackson.
"Bob is not done," said Stanton. "This has been a significant, emotional learning experience for Bob Jackson. I think he does have the ability to obtain the trust of his commissioners, and become a better mayor, if he choses to do so."
-- Michael Sandler can be reached at 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
North Pinellas desks