LARGO — This city has long been known for its aggressive annexation policies, but commissioners are stinging from charges that their approach lacks charm.
That will likely change. Commissioners directed staff to project an image more like "Mr. Rogers' neighborhood," as Largo Commissioner Curtis Holmes described it. But being warmer and friendlier doesn't mean backing off on annexations. It's more a matter of making sure people understand why it's a good idea to become a Largo taxpayer.
"We really need to make nice to those people we just annexed," Holmes said after a recent commission meeting. He and other commissioners directed staff members to meet with residents and show them the benefits of Largo citizenship.
The controversy over Largo's annexation style started months ago as part of a larger discussion. One issue was what the city should do with indenture, or contract, annexation agreements that had been hanging around for a while. "Indentures," a commonly used annexation tactic around the country, are agreements between a property owner and a city whereby the owner agrees to annex if the city provides him or her with something, such as water or sewer service. Many times the agreements are signed long before the property adjoins a city and can be annexed. But they are binding on future property owners.
Largo found it had about 351 such agreements that were ripe for annexation. Staff members decided to do the annexations in batches, 181 last month and this month; 120 this month and next; and the final 50 by the end of August.
They notified the homeowners with two form letters stating that they were about to be annexed. Most seemed okay with the idea. But some, especially in the Brookstone, Brookstone Addition and Long Branch Creek subdivisions, were upset. They claimed Largo was breaking the law by the annexations. They objected to the tone of the notification letters. And, after the first of two hearings, they objected to the commission's attitude.
"I asked about the benefits I would receive as a Largo resident and the benefits that Largo gains by annexation," George Bollenback of the Long Branch Creek subdivision wrote in an email after speaking in front of the commission. "The answers to both issues were at best perfunctory government-speak."
Bollenback added that he was upset at Holmes' response to those who threatened not to vote for commissioners who voted to annex them. Holmes said he would be up for re-election in 2016 and they could challenge him then. He was also angered by Mayor Pat Gerard's body language.
"But most disturbing, Madam Mayor, was your appearance and demeanor. … Your facial expressions varied between smirks and condescension," Bollenback wrote. "One of your fellow commissioner's responses to the citizens that spoke was as arrogant as I've ever encountered in an elected official. Is this Mr. Holmes' normal response to probing questions of Largo residents? No doubt you will succeed in your heavy-handed annexation crusade, but rest assured I will not welcome you and some of your commissioners as my representatives for the city."
Holmes, Gerard and other commissioners agreed the notification letters were a bit cold. They directed the staff to come up with a friendlier approach.
That's going to be tricky, said Teresa Brydon, the city's economic development manager. The letter has to conform to law, and legalese can sound cold.
"I think the twist might be (that) I'll look at a way to better inform the person who's getting the letter that this is what's going on," Brydon said. "Maybe that will take the severity out of the letter. It will be a challenge."
And, Brydon said, she'll ask for help: "I'll get with the mayor and I'll get with Commissioner Holmes and others (and ask), 'please, please, give me what you think we need to say.' "
The commission also directed Brydon and staff members to meet with residents of the newly annexed areas to introduce them to Largo.
That's no problem, she said, because the city already does followup meetings to introduce the new residents to the police, fire, recreation and trash service they'll be getting.
Contact Anne Lindberg at email@example.com or (727) 893-8450.