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    A Times Editorial

    Mayor's meddling hampers Largo

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001

    If Largo isn't careful, it will get a worse reputation than Clearwater for botching important projects.

    People are shaking their heads about the Largo City Commission's latest tangle over downtown redevelopment. If we didn't know better, we'd think the city was determined not to accomplish anything downtown.

    Earlier this year, commissioners were stung by public criticism from downtown merchants who said they were losing their shirts while the city dallied. Even the city staff seemed fed up, telling commissioners they needed to come up with a vision, some consensus, about what they want.

    So last month, after many months (some would say years) of flailing around on the subject of downtown redevelopment, the City Commission seemed to get it together. Commissioners hashed out their differences and approved a list of objectives for downtown -- the foundation on which redevelopment could be built.

    They decided to sell the old city hall site to a developer to build a mix of townhomes, retail and commercial businesses. They decided to remove overhead wires and pave streets with bricks. They decided there would be areas downtown where people could gather for conversation, including a small park.

    Then what happened?

    Another U-turn.

    Mayor Bob Jackson doesn't like some of the objectives and doesn't believe recent sketches based on those objectives reflect the sort of downtown the community wants. So without consulting the City Commission, Jackson asked City Manager Steve Stanton to hire, at city expense of about $1,000, an architect to draw sketches reflecting the mayor's vision for downtown.

    "I want to put it out there and (let developers) decide whether it is feasible or not," Jackson said.

    Jackson's fellow commissioners found out what he was up to and confronted him at this week's City Commission meeting. They were understandably upset that Jackson had gone behind their backs to the city manager and was developing a plan and sketches of his own.

    Jackson might have some legitimate beefs with the adopted plan, and perhaps he is trying to be the sort of leader he feels the city needs.

    But going off on his own after the city's other elected leaders approved a plan does more damage than good. It makes him look untrustworthy to his fellow commissioners. It makes the commission appear fractured and contentious to residents and the business community. And it surely will send would-be developers somewhere else. After all, if you were a developer, would you want either the mayor or a majority of the City Commission against you as you prepared to make a big, risky investment downtown? It is hard enough to lure developers into failing downtowns when city leaders present a united front.

    Being a mayor is a tricky thing. A mayor needs to be a leader but also a consensus-builder. Jackson doesn't have it right yet. If he wanted his own ideas about downtown included in the city's plan, he should have presented them during the public debate and tried to persuade his colleagues to accept them. But if they did not, he should have accepted defeat and become a cheerleader for the commission's adopted plan.

    Now he has to take up another task that mayors sometimes face: damage control.

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