City sees widening rift with Pinellas
By ERIC STIRGUS
© St. Petersburg Times,
LARGO -- The meeting had gone smoothly until City Manager Steven Stanton asked Pinellas County budget director Mark Woodard for a copy of documents detailing how tax money from homeowners who live in Largo and other cities is allocated.
Woodard refused, the city manager recalled, and the two men got into a heated exchange.
In a subdued manner, Seminole City Manager Frank Edmunds, who was also at the meeting, asked for the documents. Woodard quickly agreed, a surprised Stanton recalled.
The flare-up was one of several spats between Largo city officials and Pinellas County's government over the past year. The two entities deal with each other on numerous issues, and both groups worry that residents will become annoyed with such disputes.
"I think the county and the city need to refresh their relationship," said Largo City Commissioner Mary Laurance, who said she has heard some complaints about Largo from county officials.
Stanton said county employees have been increasingly adversarial toward Largo and other municipalities since Fred Marquis retired as county administrator last year. Acting County Administrator Gay Lancaster disputed that assertion and says disputes between Largo and her staff were inevitable, the byproduct of a normal relationship between two organizations that frequently deal with each other.
The most recent quarrel began late last month and has not been fully resolved. It began with a county presentation on annexation techniques used by Largo. Now, Stanton said, he expects that Largo will be sued by the county on the issue.
A meeting is scheduled for Monday to discuss the dispute.
Stanton found the presentation, which took place on July 30, offensive. In particular, Stanton was distressed by Chief Assistant County Attorney Jim Bennett's use of the term "municipals" to describe cities.
"It was used in a derogatory sense," Stanton said. "We're not municipals. We're incorporated communities. I think it shows contempt as to why cities exist."
Stanton was further angered by a letter from Bennett asking for Largo's sewer connection policy and other files. In a subsequent letter to Lancaster, Stanton said Bennett's letter amounted to the first step toward suing Largo over its annexation policies and threatened to cancel the meeting. Laurance urged Stanton in an e-mail to keep the meeting. Stanton agreed.
Lancaster said she has not heard complaints from any other city about the presentation. She was startled by Stanton's letter and denied that the county plans to file a lawsuit.
"I guess I was surprised at the level of vehemence in his letter," Lancaster said. "We have every interest in sitting down with him and discussing these issues. I'm not certain why he feels that way. We always want to resolve anything without litigation. To me, it is a last resort to any problem."
To some, the conflicting perceptions about the county's records request might reflect a difficult working relationship between Lancaster and Stanton. Both say it does not. The two quickly state their admiration and respect for each other. They have been dealing with each other for more than a decade.
Stanton says the problem lies with Lancaster's subordinates.
"With Fred Marquis, it would not have happened because he would know what (Bennett) was going to say," said Stanton. "These are transitional leadership issues that come when you are a lame duck."
Stanton said he experienced similar issues when he was an acting city manager.
Lancaster, who has said she has no interest in pursuing the county administrator's position on a permanent basis, rejected Stanton's claim that she and her staff are not on the same page.
"No," she said. "Not at all. I've experienced top-notch support."
County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris, however, thinks Stanton may have a point.
"With no county administrator, everyone feels like they have to look out for their own interest," he said.
Harris suggested that the county and others may not be in tune with Largo's evolution from a small town to the county's third-most populated city.
"Largo has grown," Harris said. "And we have to accept who they are and we can't define who they are."
The city's interests seemed to diverge from the county's priorities in January, when county officials hosted a meeting to discuss a host of planned improvements to Ridgecrest, an unincorporated neighborhood near Largo. Many Largo residents angrily expressed their opposition to a planned road extension from Ridgecrest into Largo, a project strongly supported by county officials. Though city commissioners never took a formal vote on the matter, some advised Largo residents opposed to the road extension to fight the county on the extension.
Ultimately, the county approved the road extension and the city never officially contested it. But the incident again put the city and the county on opposite ends of an issue.
The aggressive annexation approach embraced by Stanton and his unwillingness to always acquiesce to the wishes of others has helped and hurt in relations with the county, observes Laurance.
Little League registration was one example of how it didn't help, she said.
Some parents who live in unincorporated communities were angry that the city was charging their children more money than Largo children to play on city fields. City workers showed up at the Little League sign-ups handing out information to non-residents about annexation into Largo. Outraged, County Commissioner Karen Seel called Laurance to complain. The annexation pitch at Little League registration soon ended.
"Steve's got a little bit of a fighter in him," Laurance said. "I'm almost proud of Steve because he fights for what he thinks is right. But sometimes, he has a skewed view of things."
Stanton is aware that his approach has made him some enemies in county government. But he also realizes that he must work with some of those people who are not thrilled with his approach.
Harris suggested that county and city officials do a better job of communicating with each other.
"Maybe that will solve the problems," he said. "Not just with Largo, but all of the county."
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