LARGO — The Largo Cultural Center — the heart of theater, dance and low-cost public entertainment in the city — has been the target of substantial criticism in recent months.
Commissioner Curtis Holmes has pushed ahead with an investigation into the center's finances, calling to cut off its funding if it doesn't become more self-sufficient.
In the recent campaign, several candidates said if elected, they would seek ways to cut off public money from the 14-year-old arts hub.
And in the Clearwater Gazette, a small weekly newspaper, a column was published citing anonymous sources insinuating that volunteers may be stealing from the center's cash registers.
But Wednesday night, about a half-dozen volunteers and patrons of the center sounded off at the City Commission meeting.
"Does it cost money? Certainly it costs money," said William Ballentine, a center volunteer and retired Philadelphia police detective. "But you get a lot of enjoyment. The joy and happiness on the people's faces is something to behold."
Dolores Ruskin, another city resident, said by marring the reputation of the center, it hurts its prospects of growing, which can have deeper societal effects.
"At a time when technology is changing, the children need to have the exposure of live performances so they realize there is something more to life than a flat screen," Ruskin said. "It will always be subsidized — but it is worth it."
According to parks and recreation director Joan Byrne, the center recoups about 70 percent of its operating expenses, which is better than most of its peer facilities.
Commissioners Harriet Crozier and Woody Brown both won re-election Tuesday. They both stood by keeping the center's public funding.
Holmes, meanwhile, has been hit with rebukes from his fellow commissioners for his efforts to reduce spending on the center.
His efforts may have lost him points among some voters, too.
"We have a database of over 24,000 patrons. And your name, Mr. Holmes, is not among them," center volunteer Betty Laing said at Wednesday's meeting. "Let's promote the facilities we have instead of constantly criticizing."
Holmes said Thursday his efforts to find corruption or fat to trim in the center's budget is part of his job — and he does not apologize for his efforts. "Under the city charter, I have a duty to look into this stuff," Holmes said.
Some center supporters have questioned Holmes' motives — because of the zeal with which Holmes has pressed the issue, despite resistance from the rest of the commission, and his appearance in Gazette stories that criticize the center through anonymous sources.
"I've been reading the articles in the Clearwater Gazette — and all of which praise Mr. Holmes and seem to tear into every other member of your commission," said Arthur Sloan, a Belleair Bluffs resident and cultural center patron. "They seem to be based primarily on information from undisclosed informants and hearsay, which would not be admissible in a court of law."
Sloan, who worked as an adviser in the Eisenhower administration and practiced law for more than 50 years, said center volunteers "have been extremely upset" by the Gazette articles and their seeming connection to Holmes' official activities.
"It seems like they're in cahoots," Sloan said.
Mayor Patricia Gerard weighed in at the end of the meeting, saying: "There have been some things said in publications . . . accusing us of fraud and cover-ups and corruption — which are frankly ridiculous and completely baseless.
"It's one thing to say that about us. But it's a different thing to say that about our volunteers and our staff."
Dominick Tao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-2951.