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Largo Commissioner Mary Gray Black follows her own path

LARGO — The way Jim Janowski sees it, you can split the City Commission into two groups — Commissioners Mary Gray Black and Curtis Holmes, and everyone else. Black and Holmes, frequent critics of city management spending policies, appeal to Janowski's fiscally conservative beliefs.

So when it comes to this fall's race for Seat 1 on the commission, Janowski has no doubt who the best person for the job is — Black, 72, who has held the seat since 2005, and has also served stints on the commission in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s .

"She is a voice in the wilderness," Janowski, 72, a Largo retiree, said of Black. "She is not a yes man for Largo city staff."

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Black is running against Michael Smith, 30, a senior library assistant at Pinellas Park Public Library. The winner gets a three-year term and an annual salary of $13,125.46.

Smith's advertisements accuse Black of "generally saying no to everything", and also criticize her for refusing to meet privately with City Manager Mac Craig (Black thinks it is a violation of the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, although it isn't) and for frequently disagreeing with City Attorney Alan Zimmet.

But what Smith sees as flaws, Black's supporters see as her sticking to her principles. One of the "no's" that Black delivered this year was to the city's proposed budget, which adopted the rollback tax rate. The increased property tax rate brings in a similar amount of revenue as last year after accounting for dropping property values.

Black and Holmes were the only two of the seven commissioners to vote against the proposed budget. Janowski, who watches or attends most commission meetings, points to that vote as a reason why Black deserves another term.

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Sandra Harper agrees. Harper, 67, a Largo retiree, knows Black through a number of local clubs, including the Largo Women's Club and the Largo Historical Society. Harper calls Black "the most trustworthy person that I know."

"The way she conducts herself as commissioner is the same way she conducts herself as an officer in our clubs — What's right is right," Harper said.

The fiscal conservatism that has earned Black the support of Janowski and Harper has been on display lately in her opposition to plans for a new Highland Recreation Complex. The city plans to borrow up to $17 million for the new center, with the money to be paid back by Local Option Sales Tax earnings.

While city staff say the tax earnings should be enough to cover the loan, Black thinks the borrowing is a bad idea, and has voted against it at every juncture.

"During this frail economic time, I do not think it wise to borrow funds from an outside source which will obligate the city," Black wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times.

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While Holmes joined Black in voting against borrowing for the new complex, Black has been on her own in her push to oust City Attorney Alan Zimmet.

Black feels that the city could save money by ending Zimmet's contract, and making Assistant City Attorney Mary Hale (who earns $63,814 per year) city attorney. Outside legal help could be hired on an as-needed basis, she said. Zimmet earned a retainer of $199,016 in 2011 to work part-time for Largo, and the city paid his firm an additional $214,532 for other work.

None of the other commissioners have supported Black's repeated motions to have Zimmet's contract terminated, and Zimmet responded in September by saying anyone who thinks that one person could handle all of Largo's legal work "doesn't have a very good understanding of the work we do."

City staff researched legal expenses at a number of local cities and other similarly-sized Florida cities, and found Largo's $557,400 spent in 2011 to be in the middle of the pack. Clearwater, for example, has an in-house legal staff of 11, and spent $1.8 million in 2011, while Pinellas Park has no full-time staff and spent $292,500 to three firms hired on a contractual basis.

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While Black's opposition to some expenses have earned her support, when she was asked for her greatest accomplishment in office, she mentioned a large Largo land purchase. Black was on the commission in 1978 when the city bought the 57-acre former Pinellas County Fairgrounds site for $1.5 million.

In an e-mail, Black called the purchase "a grand investment."

"On that beautiful jewel of open space, the city now has not only open space called Largo Central Park, but a library, a cultural arts center, and a museum," she wrote.

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When asked a few weeks ago how her campaign was going, Black said things were going very well, and complimented her campaign manager. When asked who her campaign manager was, she answered, "God."

A Christian, Black cited a higher power again this week when asked why she was seeking another three years on the commission.

"Sometimes God calls us to do something without specifically telling us what the job is," Black wrote. "I want to serve with honesty, integrity, and dedication, and I want to serve God by serving the people whom He has called me to serve."

Will Hobson can be reached at 727-445-4167 or whobson@sptimes.com.

Largo election

• One City Commission seat is up for grabs in the Nov. 8 Largo city election.

• Voters interested in mail ballots can request them online at votepinellas.com or by calling the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections at 464-VOTE (464-8683).

• The Times previously ran a profile of challenger Michael Smith.

Largo Commissioner Mary Gray Black follows her own path 10/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 22, 2011 5:31am]

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