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    A Times Editorial

    Give mayor a chance to change


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 5, 2002

    It took a week, but Largo Mayor Bob Jackson finally issued a formal apology late Friday for a comment he made in court Monday that has led to a full-scale revolt by other city commissioners.

    Until he wrote that apology, Jackson had been more defensive than apologetic, only widening the chasm. It remains to be seen whether the apology will satisfy his furious colleagues, who say his detrimental court testimony in a lawsuit against the city was just the final straw in their dealings with the mayor.

    To briefly summarize, the city was sued last month by the owner of the Bay Area Renaissance Festival, which for 23 years has been held on six spring weekends in Largo Central Park. The festival owner, Jim Peterson, sued after the City Commission voted 5-2 to cancel the lease of city parkland to the festival.

    Some commissioners had tired of residents' complaints, common since the late 1980s, about noise, litter and traffic from the festival; of Peterson's lobbying to get out of certain lease provisions; and of the festival's ramshackle buildings and stages occupying a tree-shaded portion of the park year-round. Aside from all that, the upcoming construction of a new library on the open field that serves as the festival's parking area meant the festival no longer could be accommodated in the park, five commissioners said. Jackson, a longtime supporter of the festival and a friend of Peterson, voted against canceling the lease.

    On Monday, Jackson testified in a brief court hearing on a component of the festival's lawsuit, having been subpoenaed by the festival. When the festival attorney, Marion Hale, asked Jackson if the event could be accommodated in Largo Central Park, Jackson answered yes, flabbergasting the city representatives in the courtroom. He added insult to injury by sitting on the festival's side of the courtroom, passing notes to Hale, and walking out with the festival proponents.

    City commissioners were outraged that Jackson had testified to a position that was opposite that of the commission majority, and they feared it put the city at risk of losing the lawsuit.

    Jackson defended himself. He was only telling the truth, he said. Could the city accommodate the festival? Yes, it could.

    Could the city burn down City Hall? Yes, it could, but it wouldn't make sense. Jackson, a retired school principal, has to know that a simple "yes" to the question, "Could the city accommodate the Renaissance Festival?" not only harmed the city's legal position, but is only a partial truth.

    Yes, the city could accommodate the festival in the current location if it halted its library construction plans, but why delay the much-needed public library to preserve a rental contract with a private company? Could the city accommodate the festival somewhere else in the park on undeveloped land? Perhaps it could, but up to $1-million worth of roads and utilities would have to be built to serve the festival site, an expense the city is not prepared to immediately shoulder. Jackson should have and easily could have elaborated on his answer.

    All week, memos flew back and forth as commissioners, prevented from speaking to each other because of the Sunshine Law, tried to share their outrage over the mayor's behavior. It soon became clear that at least some of the commissioners had more than just the court testimony on their list of Jackson transgressions, and because of that they no longer believed the mayor could lead the commission or be trusted to support the majority position on issues.

    They mentioned the time in 2000 when a majority of the City Commission, not including the mayor, killed a developer's proposal to build apartments downtown. They said Jackson told people the apartment proposal was not dead.

    They mentioned how, after months of hearings and debate, the commission adopted its vision for downtown. But Jackson, who had a different idea, directed the city manager to hire an architect to draw his personal vision of downtown.

    And commissioners said they were tired of being criticized for being indecisive when it only appears they are because Jackson, who is chairman of the meetings, encourages endless debate, refuses to accept majority rule when he disagrees, and fails to lead the group to consensus. After 27 years on the City Commission, they said Jackson ought to be better at this.

    They may be asking something that Jackson can't or won't deliver. As a commissioner, Jackson was known as the resident contrarian, a role he seemed to relish. He voted "no" more than anyone else and sometimes just on principle. He was blunt in his remarks, to the point of offending people. A long, feisty debate was right up his alley.

    That behavior does not translate well to the mayor's post, which he has held for two years now. Though the mayor has only one vote on the seven-member commission, he plays important roles as the chairman of commission meetings and the ceremonial head of the city. At commission meetings, he needs to be a leader who courteously but firmly guides the commission toward consensus. In the community, he needs to be a team builder. Jackson cannot be successful in either role if he tries to be the Lone Ranger, single-mindedly pushing his own agenda in opposition to the commission majority.

    Exactly one year ago on this page, an editorial criticized Jackson's style and urged him to make changes for the good of the city. We like to believe that Bob Jackson, Largo's longest-serving elected official, cares enough about his city to change. While other city commissioners are right to be upset with Jackson, they should give him an opportunity to learn from this crisis, one of the worst in recent history, and immediately modify his approach. If he doesn't, he will be seen as a saboteur of the city's efforts.

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