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Rambunctious City Commission meetings, a new citizens group that represents a vocal minority, several progressive but expensive city projects, and challengers who have lots of complaints about city government have made this year's campaign season in Largo more interesting than usual.
It remains to be seen whether all of that will have any impact on Largo's traditionally rock-bottom voter turnout. But residents willing to make the trip to the polls on March 4 will have real choices among candidates with very different styles and agendas.
Voters will select a mayor and two commissioners to serve three-year terms on the seven-member City Commission.
For mayor, incumbent Robert E. "Bob" Jackson, a 69-year-old retired school principal, is seeking re-election to a second term. He is being challenged by Marty Shelby, 45, who was serving his third term as a commissioner when he resigned in January to run for mayor. Shelby is an attorney who has taken time off to stay home with his 12-year-old daughter.
Seat 3 on the City Commission, now held by Pat Gerard, is being sought by challenger Tom Robbins. Challenger Ernie Bach is campaigning for incumbent Jean Halvorsen's Seat 4.
The Times makes editorial recommendations in all Largo elections. To prepare for making those recommendations, the Times conducts an extensive interview with each candidate, attends candidate forums, researches the candidates' backgrounds and seeks input from people who know the candidates.
Today we focus on our recommendation in the mayor's race. Recommendations in the Seat 3 and Seat 4 races will be printed later this week. The Times urges all Largo residents to go to the polls March 4 and make their own choices.
Bob Jackson has been an open book -- even when it didn't necessarily benefit him -- during his almost 30 years as a commissioner and mayor. Blunt, sometimes unpolished, even a little cranky, Jackson voted his convictions, did his homework, answered questions and never changed his spots. A couple of weeks ago Jackson sat for a long interview with Times editors, answered even difficult questions and supplied additional information as requested
Marty Shelby, on the other hand, declined the Times' invitation to be interviewed, did not fill out a questionnaire completed by other political candidates in North Pinellas cities this year and refused to return a Times reporter's phone calls for months. What does Shelby stand for? For an answer, we must rely on press releases and his statements at campaign appearances.
Shelby used to say Jackson was his mentor, but he turned against him and other members of the City Commission last year over the issue of building a new public library.
Largo officials had talked for almost four years about the need to do something about the jammed, 30,000-square-foot library. Two years ago the city hired a library space consultant who told them the city would need a 93,000-square-foot library by 2009. The City Commission, including Shelby, voted unanimously to build a new library in Largo Central Park and to spend more than $20-million to make it a signature building. ". . . If we are going to do it, let's do it right," Shelby said at the time. The commission, including Shelby, hired an architect and unveiled a design to the public.
Then Shelby not only changed his position on the library, he called for the city to halt the project and conduct a public referendum on whether it should be built. Despite the years of discussion and votes in public meetings, he called the library plan a "stealth bomber" that came in "under the radar." He packed a City Commission meeting with more than 100 people who apparently believed his comments and joined his cause. He alienated his commission colleagues by implying they had done something nefarious by making the decision to build a much-needed library -- a decision he also made.
Whether Shelby's eleventh-hour concern was genuine or he was making a play for support in the coming election, we don't know. But Shelby worked to get a tide of discontent flowing and painted Largo city government -- the government he was part of until just weeks ago -- as a government uninterested in residents' views, that has turned into "a vinegar factory" and is "arrogant and insensitive."
Yet Shelby the Mayoral Candidate, when describing himself in campaign appearances, says he will "work in harmony" with other local governments, "work together constructively" with other members of the City Commission, and that the professionals in city government have "shown great leadership."
No one has to wonder about Mayor Bob Jackson's motives. He has spent almost 30 years of his life in dedicated work on behalf of the city. As a commissioner he was known for his independent votes and his fiscal conservatism. As mayor, he has become a civic booster and speaks with pride of the city's accomplishments under his watch.
And there are many. The city moved into a new city hall, opened a new family aquatic center, built Largo Nature Park as an expansion of Largo Central Park, opened a new tennis complex, got planning for the new library under way, began an aggressive annexation program to expand the city's tax base and help keep taxes low, created citizen academies so residents can take classes to learn more about city government, made progress on downtown redevelopment, started a strategic planning process for the future, and kept the tax rate at the same number it was three years ago.
By virtue of his position as mayor, Jackson also fulfilled a role outside of the city in organizations that work to plan for the future of Pinellas County. He is vice chairman of the Pinellas Planning Council, where he has been an active, contributing member, and participated in the Pinellas Assembly and the countywide redevelopment summit.
Does all this mean that Jackson has been the perfect mayor and that everything is peachy in city government? No. The City Commission and city staff have made some mistakes in the past year that indicate they need to be more thorough and more accountable.
Jackson has had difficulty finding his footing as mayor, especially following in the wake of former mayor Thom Feaster, a strong leader. This newspaper has criticized him for letting debate continue long after it stopped being productive, for his reluctance to properly control the audience at commission meetings, and for not articulating a clear vision for the community. At times Jackson went off on independent tangents, to the irritation of fellow commissioners; other times, he wouldn't lead the commission to a firm decision on issues.
But those have been failings of personality, not heart. Bob Jackson wants the best for Largo, and he has given untold hours trying to achieve it. He doesn't seek to divide the community, but tries to keep it moving forward in progressive ways. He has apologized for his shortcomings and vowed to work to be a better communicator.
We recommend a vote for Bob Jackson for mayor of Largo.
Candidates not recommended may submit a response for publication before the election. Responses should be 300-350 words and may not attack opponents. Responses must be submitted by noon Wednesday to Diane Steinle, St. Petersburg Times, 710 Court St., Clearwater FL 33756; or they may be faxed to her attention at 445-4119 or e-mailed to email@example.com.