Bob LaSala meets Lealman
LaSala talked about many things, from the budget to emergency medical services to mass transit. He introduced the audience to the county's new motto - "be all you can afford to be." But it was when he began taking questions that he came face to face with the strong emotions that the "A" word - that's annexation - evokes from many in this unincorporated area.
Former Lealman fire Commissioner John Frank was especially vocal. Frank complained that Lealman activists have worked for at least 10 years trying to preserve their community from being chewed apart by annexations from the surrounding municipalities of St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Seminole and Kenneth City. Yet, Tierra Verde has one annexation, Frank said, and within a few months, the Legislature passes an "all or nothing" bill to help protect and preserve the island. In the meantime, Frank said, "Lealman is rapidly descending into an economic ghetto despite the efforts of people in this community."
Frank ascribed the situation to elected officials' being more responsive to rich people, like many of those in Tierra Verde, than to poor, like many in Lealman, who are among the most destitute in Pinellas. Frank criticized the county for not being more proactive in defending Lealman.
"I don't have a silver bullet," LaSala said. The county, he said, is hamstrung by annexation laws that favor cities.
LaSala's answers didn't seem to mollify Frank or others, although one man reassured the county administrator that, "we're not trying to lay it all on you." And someone else called out, "We just want some answers."
County Commissioner Ken Welch, who represents Lealman, tried to calm the roiled waters, saying, "Bob, welcome to Lealman. If I'd had a chance, I'd have told you about the legendary John Frank."
But LaSala said he was not offended: "I'm not put off by your fervor, your strong opinions." He promised to return.
-- Anne Lindberg, Times Staff Writer