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Snub halts tribute to friend on council

The son of the man banned from the meeting calls it political foul play. But the mayor says it's a misunderstanding.

JENNIFER FARRELL
Published March 27, 2004

CLEARWATER - Bill Justice was all set to play his harmonica last week at City Hall, the country classic Wabash Cannonball, and maybe say a few words in honor of his old friend, J.B. Johnson, who was stepping down from an interim appointment to the City Council.

But then he got a message from the mayor to blow it out his ear.

What had been planned as an upbeat tribute ended on a sour note with hurt feelings and cries of misunderstanding and political foul play.

Now Justice's son is demanding an explanation and an apology.

In a sharply worded letter to Mayor Brian Aungst, Garry Justice said his father was banned from the March 18 ceremony honoring Johnson. He questioned whether the council routinely applies political litmus tests to screen opponents from participating.

Bill Justice, 82, is a former City Council member and principal of Clearwater High. He opposed the city's failed bid for permission from voters to redevelop Coachman Park, a move Aungst campaigned heavily for.

Aungst acknowledged Friday that he was still angry with a flier produced by Save the Bayfront, a group Justice has contributed to, that criticized the park plan.

But he denied banning Justice from the meeting.

"I didn't say that I don't want him there," Aungst said. "I just passed on that there were some hard feelings."

Aungst said he received several calls from people upset at the possibility that Justice might play his harmonica at the meeting. Johnson had announced plans to invite his friend during a previous meeting, one week before the failed referendum, he said.

The day after the vote, Aungst said, he asked City Manager Bill Horne to tell Johnson about the calls.

"I did not tell him not to invite him," Aungst said. "If (Johnson) wanted him there, he would have been allowed to come up."

Horne recalled the discussion differently.

Aungst said he didn't want Justice to attend based on his involvement with Save the Bayfront, Horne said.

"He wanted J.B. to know that he felt it was inappropriate," Horne said. "I expressed it to J.B. that way . . . J.B. decided to honor the mayor's wish."

In fact, Johnson called Justice immediately after Horne's phone call, which came less than two hours before the meeting, to tell him he was no longer welcome.

"It really upset me," Johnson said Friday. "We've been friends since 1935."

Johnson said he was embarrassed but didn't want to create a scene.

He did not discuss the matter with Aungst.

"I was too upset," he said. "I might have said something that I would have regretted."

Other council members, meanwhile, seemed dismayed at the matter, which has left Johnson angry after he stepped in to help the city.

Council member Frank Hibbard said he wasn't aware of the controversy until he read the letter Garry Justice sent to City Hall. Afterward, he called Bill and Garry Justice to apologize on behalf of the City Council.

"I don't ever mind anybody talking," he said.

Likewise, Council member Bill Jonson said he wouldn't have discouraged Justice from attending.

"How do I say this nicely? It's not an action that I would have taken," he said. "If J.B. wanted a harmonica tribute from a former city commissioner, it's certainly all right with me."

On Friday, Justice shrugged off the snub.

"It was not that important to me," he said. "If that's the way they feel, then that's their prerogative. I won't hold it against them."

Aungst had used Horne as a "hatchet man," he said.

Justice, a former assistant superintendent for Pinellas County Schools and a football coach at Clearwater High, said it was the first time he has ever been asked to stay away from a public meeting.

Justice did not attend. His son went in his place and spoke on behalf of Johnson.

On Friday, Bill Justice joked that his harmonica performance could have been too much for the council to handle.

"It might have been a cultural shock to them," he said.

The matter is a misunderstanding, Aungst said, and he has no intention of apologizing.

"I just fail to see why this has become such a big controversy," he said.

Aungst said he thinks Justice may have lingering bad feelings from a disagreement four to five years ago during a morning prayer breakfast.

"He verbally attacked me in a church meeting," Aungst said. "At 6:30 in the morning."

Allowing Garry Justice to speak, Aungst said, proves he wasn't hard-headed about the issue. Asking Bill Justice not to attend was Johnson's decision, he said.

"I'm sorry, but that was entirely up to J.B.," Aungst said. "I was frankly surprised when he didn't come."

- Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrell@sptimes.com

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