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    Destructive politics plague Largo government

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    By DIANE STEINLE, Times Staff Writer

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 9, 2003


    It has been years since I've seen a city ripping itself into pieces like Largo is doing right now.

    The last time was probably when a millionaire named Fred Thomas ran for office in Clearwater and turned the place inside-out. A city government that had traditionally conducted itself quietly and professionally, with residents who typically approached their city government courteously, suddenly was changed in ways that were more negative than positive.

    Thomas organized his followers into "Fred's Army" -- they wore painters' hats emblazoned with the name -- and with their help he set about pursuing his personal agenda in city government. A proponent of the "chaos theory" of management, Thomas' term was marked by micromanagement and bullying of staff, a lack of civility in public discourse, vilifying of public officials and residents who questioned him, and new political rifts in the community. Thomas served only one term, from 1993 to 1996, but it has taken years for the city to recover its equilibrium.

    Largo government was comparatively quiet, known more for its public apathy than anything else. City Commission meetings usually were low key, voter turnout for elections was about the lowest in the county, and since few people wanted to run for office, responsible officials were re-elected repeatedly.

    But then, the Largo City Commission decided to build a new public library. And it has been all downhill since then.

    It's just weird that a decision to build a great new library -- something that other communities do with joy and pride -- would split a city and galvanize a group of dissenters. And it probably would not have happened without someone to seed the clouds -- a person who, like Thomas in Clearwater, could stir up a storm, turn events to his advantage, and rally opponents. In Largo, that person is Marty Shelby, former city commissioner and candidate for mayor in the March 4 election.

    Like most of the other city commissioners, Shelby had concluded that the Largo Library is undersized, dysfunctional and needs to be replaced. He had voted to build a new, signature library.

    And then he turned against it. Though city officials had been discussing plans for a new library since 1999, he called the project a "stealth bomb." He criticized the library's rising cost and the process by which it was approved. Months after the commission okayed the project, he called for the commission to back up and conduct a public referendum.

    The City Commission majority that supported the library proceeded with the plans. In the past, a city commissioner in Shelby's shoes would have conceded defeat and let it go, recognizing that he represented a minority position. But not Shelby. He began communicating with a few people who shared his views, they talked to others, and like a virus, the discontent spread. Then came the commission meeting last June when Shelby packed the City Hall meeting room with people demanding to vote on the library "boondoggle."

    Since that night, many City Commission meetings feature a parade of speakers -- mostly the same people -- who may shout into the microphone, accuse commissioners of malfeasance or stupidity, and issue threats -- all on camera and broadcast over government cable channel 15. Police officers now stand guard at every meeting. Commissioners sit on the dais with their jaws clenched, holding onto their tempers and steeling themselves for the open microphone portion of the meeting known as "Citizen Comment." The dissidents have flocked to Shelby and have formed a group, Largo Citizen Watch, that has its own Web site and is pushing for the election of Shelby and two other candidates, Ernie Bach and Tom Robbins, on March 4.

    Last week's City Commission meeting was the worst.

    Before the meeting someone blanketed several Largo mobile home parks with an anonymous flier that stated, "Mobile home residents your future is going to be presented to the Largo City Commission February 4 in the Largo City Hall Commission Chambers. ... Come voice your concerns about losing your homes. THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE."

    The flier was a lie. No discussion of mobile home parks or their future was planned for Feb. 4. But a big crowd of upset mobile home residents showed up at City Hall. They had no way of knowing that they were being manipulated for political purposes by someone too cowardly to admit authorship of the flier.

    They didn't hear any commission discussion of mobile home parks. But they met candidates Shelby and Bach, who energetically worked the crowd before the meeting, introducing themselves and shaking hands. They heard Shelby deliver a speech about the "great people" of Largo and how much satisfaction he had gotten from "serving the people" while a commissioner. And they listened as other speakers accused the commissioners of "rule by oligarchy," of having "moral character issues," of being "bobbing heads."

    And whoever lured them to City Hall probably was delighted that they were there to see Commissioner Charlie Harper finally lose his cool and shout at a man in the audience who had accused commissioners of backroom deals. Mayor Bob Jackson should have controlled the exchange by gaveling the man down or having him removed if he insisted on speaking from his seat, but Jackson didn't do either.

    Most Largo residents probably are unaware that there has been such a disintegration of civility in the conduct of public affairs in their town. They probably don't know that what started out as a little split is a growing, widening fissure. They probably don't realize that when this kind of vitriol spills over city government, it can, as it did in Clearwater in the '90s, seep through the entire community.

    Largo city government isn't perfect -- in fact, there is cause to criticize some of the city's decisions. But there is a difference between criticizing and maliciously attacking. One is constructive; the other is destructive.

    Is this the brand of politics that the silent majority in Largo wants?

    Dunedin candidate recommendations

    Dunedin voters will go to the polls Tuesday to choose two new city commissioners from a slate of six candidates. Candidates run citywide. The top two vote-getters win the seats. There are no incumbents seeking re-election.

    After conducting indepth interviews with the candidates, examining their backgrounds and attending candidate forums, the Times recommends:

    Dave Eggers and Julie Scales for Dunedin City Commission.

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