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    Freshman mayor gets few demerits

    Some say Largo Mayor Bob Jackson has been attentive. Others say he ignores them. All agree it has been a learning experience.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


    LARGO -- Bob Jackson, who celebrates his first year as mayor on Wednesday, didn't realize the job would be this tough.

    As principal of Southside Fundamental Middle School, Jackson could stroll the halls and talk to faculty members to gather support for his initiatives. As mayor, building consensus is a tougher challenge.

    He meets with commissioners once a week. Many times, he has championed politically unpopular positions that have not been embraced by fellow commissioners.

    The mayor has been on the losing side of efforts to sell city land to Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, to work with a developer to build in downtown Largo and to create a task force to spur downtown redevelopment. He also was the only commissioner to publicly support the county's plans to extend 119th Street N into a Largo neighborhood.

    "I think the hardest thing I've found is seeing (commissioners) once a week and building consensus," said Jackson, 67, who had been a commissioner for 25 years before being elected mayor.

    Overcoming the legacy of the man he replaced, former Mayor Thomas Feaster, has made Jackson's first year even more complicated.

    "There was quite a bit of momentum under Feaster," said GiGi Arntzen, a community activist. "That seemed to stop."

    Feaster is a businessman who used the mayor's office as a bully pulpit, hammering home issues important to him. He gauged commission support for his initiatives by asking City Manager Steven Stanton to feel them out on certain topics.

    Jackson, an educator, prefers to throw out ideas and seek agreement through discussion, no matter how lengthy it may be.

    While Feaster often let commissioners debate issues before weighing in, Jackson likes to hop into the middle of a discussion on an agenda item.

    But recently, observers say they have seen a different Mayor Jackson -- a man who has begun to do a little more listening.

    "I think he's working better at getting us on the same page," said Commissioner Harriet Crozier.

    There have been few times in Largo's history in which the need for consensus has been more important. The city will soon try again to find a developer to help revitalize downtown. Then there's the library. Studies show that a new one is needed, which has left commissioners trying to figure out how to pay for it.

    A new library is particularly important to Jackson. He has been an outspoken supporter, reiterating its importance at a meeting last week.

    "It is a gem and it is not a question of whether it is needed," Jackson said. "It is overcrowded and undersized."

    Stanton has noticed that Jackson has pushed for a library with the same fervor Feaster had when lobbying commissioners for a new building for City Hall.

    "I think every mayor wants to come in and create a legacy," Stanton said. "I think Bob desperately wants to leave that as a legacy."

    Some people, like Arntzen, would like Jackson to give fellow commissioners more time to express their views before he weighs in with his. Others, like Largo businessman Ron Bortolini, think Jackson has done well to force commissioners to explain their decisions by allowing more time for discussion. "I think Bob is putting the responsibility back on them and I think that's good," said Bortolini, who said Jackson deserves a grade of B for his first year as mayor. Arntzen, on the other hand, gave him a C.

    Jackson is a stickler for details. Stanton recalled the mayor being surprised when he didn't know, off the top of his head, which cruisers officers were assigned to drive.

    "I want to know what is going on," Jackson said, explaining his curiousity. "Not because I want to run (city government). I want to know the implications."

    Despite the obvious differences, Stanton sees similarities between Jackson and Feaster. They love the city, know its history and have a "tremendous network of confidants." They also love being mayor.

    Jackson's devotion is obvious. He attends weekly 7:30 a.m. breakfasts held by the Downtown Largo Main Street Association. He often accompanies a member of the Greater Largo Chamber of Commerce to weekly meetings with business owners. He shows up to all the perfunctory ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

    "Bob has a good heart," said Feaster. "He's loyal. He's dedicated to the city and has been for years."

    Jackson has a sense of humor. During a commission meeting, he presented the city's environmental services director with a small toilet and flushed it. Laughter filled the room. He also can be testy. This year he publicly castigated the Fire Department for overspending.

    "Bob isn't trying to be mean," Stanton said. "It's just his style."

    Jackson has grumbled that Stanton's staff sometimes does not support his ideas. Jackson points to the the county's plans to extend 119th Street N from Ridgecrest into a Largo neighborhood as an example.

    The plan created a firestorm. Some residents said connecting the two neighborhoods would increase crime. Jackson disagreed and strongly supported the plan, even when some of the commissioners sidestepped the issue with their silence.

    "That's a classic example of me being out on my own," Jackson said.

    Ruth Dowling, who lives in the neighborhood that opposes the road, said that Jackson's support for the road extension shows his unwillingness to listen to his constituents.

    "Not one minute did he agree or even seem to understand what we were thinking," said the Taylor Lake resident. "The residents I know felt Mayor Jackson let them down."

    Jackson's backbone has earned him praise in other camps.

    "He's not going to sit there and say something to get a vote and I respect that," said Bortolini.

    Jackson's goals for the next 12 months include obtaining funding for the new library, curtailing flooding along McKay Creek and finding a developer for downtown. He also said he'll work on his style.

    And what grade would the former teacher give his first year as mayor?

    "I think I'd give myself an A- or B+

    ,' he said.

    Mayor Bob Jackson's report car

    Harriet Crozier, city commissionerB

    Thomas Feaster, former mayorA for effort

    Marc Mansfield, Greater Largo Chamberof Commerce presidentB

    Ruth Dowling, Taylor Lake Homeowners AssociationF

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