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Petition pushes for a strong-mayor form of government in Largo

LARGO — The mayor, not the city manager, would call the shots if Harry Ploger got his way.

He has led a petition drive, hoping to persuade city leaders to ask voters if they'd want a strong-mayor form of government in Largo.

Ploger, who admits he has a beef with Largo City Manager Mac Craig, says the current system is "dictatorial."

Craig disagrees.

"I don't dictate to anybody," said Craig, who has led the city since 2007. "He's got me figured all wrong."

Ploger is hoping city commissioners will also give Largo voters a chance to implement runoff election procedures and to adopt an aldermanic system of representation, with at least 12 elected representatives, each answering to a specific district.

"We're trying to change the form of government in Largo," said Ploger, 74, who grew up in Illinois, where the aldermanic structure is more common. "We want to have a more representative government where all of the neighborhoods have someone to represent them."

Former Mayor Bob Jackson, who signed and helped circulate the petition, said he has long been an advocate for a strong-mayor form of government, like in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Largo has a commission-manager system, where the city manager hires and fires city staffers and runs Largo's daily operations.

"What's happening is that the staff controls everything," said Jackson, who also favors implementing runoff procedures.

Ploger's wife submitted the petition at last week's city meeting. City commissioners will likely discuss the request.

"I'll see if anybody else wants to talk about it," said Mayor Pat Gerard.

Gerard is open to considering runoff procedures, but she thinks all of the issues should be handled by the city's charter review committee, which is due to convene next year.

Gerard is concerned that a strong-mayor system may force a mayor to politicize virtually every decision about the city's day-to-day affairs.

"I honestly think our form of government is perfect for us at this point in time," Gerard said.

She'd also be reluctant to institute the aldermanic form of government.

"I'm not sure I want to replicate Chicago politics," she said.

Commissioner Curtis Holmes, who agrees with the runoff provision, is eager to discuss Ploger's requests.

He'd like to hear all of the pros and cons surrounding the strong-mayor debate, he said. And while he'd be open to assigning some commission seats to districts, he thinks 12 representatives in Largo is overkill.

"It's unworkable," Holmes said. "We'd have the same problems they have in Washington or Tallahassee."

Ploger's petition includes nearly 60 names and addresses. At least two people on the petition are not Largo residents. And several names appear to be written by the same person.

Ploger, who's in poor health, said he didn't circulate the petition and didn't notice the irregularities.

For about six years, he has lobbied for a sidewalk project along Eighth Avenue NW, which also links to Mehlenbacher Road. His beef with Craig, the city manager, stems from his frustration over the sidewalk project, which has never come to fruition.

Ploger, who lives on a corner of 12th Street, blames Craig. He even singled out Craig in an e-mail publication he authors called the "12th Street Rag."

"FIX MY STREETS! I DON'T WANT EXCUSES COLONEL! I WANT RESULTS!" Ploger wrote in a recent edition. Craig is a retired Army lieutenant colonel.

But Craig said he's done everything he can to get Ploger a sidewalk. And it hasn't been easy.

Ploger's street is lined by a series of ditches. And the sidewalk project is linked to a complex drainage project. The project will cost around $1 million and it's further complicated by the fact that the city has control of the south side of the road and the county has control of the north, Craig said.

Craig said he has worked to expedite the project, which has been in the city's long-range plans for years. It's being designed now and the city plans to start construction in 2012, Craig said.

"What he doesn't understand," Craig said, "is the best friend he's got in City Hall is me."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

FAST FACTS

History lesson

1913: Largo became the first city in Florida to adopt the commissioner-manager form of government.

1974: Largo's five-member City Commission added two seats.

1983: Largo residents voted 1,565-1,547 to nix runoff elections. There was a protest over how the absentee ballots were handled in the city charter referendum, but the decision was upheld after a recount resulted in the same number of votes.

Petition pushes for a strong-mayor form of government in Largo 05/10/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 5:39pm]
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