Friday, May 25, 2018
Politics

Largo commission candidates stake out turf; 5 of 7 seats in play

LARGO — This city's next election isn't until November, but candidates are already staking out their territory.

A chain reaction of events is setting up a ballot where five of seven Largo City Commission seats will be up for grabs.

The main reason for the shake-up: Longtime Mayor Pat Gerard will be stepping down to run for a Pinellas County Commission seat, opening up the office of mayor.

Vice Mayor Woody Brown, 43, is running for mayor. He might be opposed by former Mayor Bob Jackson, who is considering a political comeback.

Other than the mayor's race, at this point there are six candidates running for the four remaining City Commission seats. There's plenty of time for that to change. But right now, here's how it shakes out:

Seat 1: Michael Smith, a 32-year-old librarian, is running for re-election to a second term in office. So far, he's unopposed.

Seat 2: Robert Murray, 59, is not seeking re-election. Instead, two political newcomers are running for this open seat. One is Samantha Fenger, 35, a former community outreach coordinator at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County. She has served on Largo's Community Development Advisory Board. The other is Daniel Ruffner, 47, a vice president at BB&T Bank and a member of Largo's Code Enforcement Board.

Seat 5: Long-serving commissioner Harriet Crozier, 69, is running for re-election again. She will be challenged by political newcomer Donna Holck, 51, owner of DJH Tax Consulting in Largo.

Seat 6: Retired Largo police Chief John Carroll, 54, who left the police force last year, is running for the seat that Woody Brown is vacating.

The qualifying period for candidates will last for two weeks, probably in August, said City Clerk Diane Bruner. That's when candidates must turn in 200 petition cards signed by Largo voters.

The nonpartisan election is Nov. 4. Largo's ballot will also have about eight city charter amendment questions.

Largo commissioners earn an annual salary of $13,454 and serve four-year terms. The mayor's salary is $20,180.

Gerard, who was first elected mayor in 2006, has mixed feelings about stepping down.

"It's hard to think about leaving. I've been doing it for eight years now, and six years before that on the commission," she said. "But it's time to turn it over to somebody else."

Gerard must submit her resignation as mayor in time for the June qualifying period for County Commission candidates. But she can stay on as mayor for most of this year. Her resignation won't have to take effect until November, when Largo's next mayor is elected and sworn in.

One person who might run for mayor is Jackson, the former mayor whom Gerard defeated in 2006.

"It's a tough decision to make," Jackson said in an interview. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

Jackson, a retired school principal, was Largo's mayor for two terms and was on the City Commission for three decades. He says he may not run for office again, partly because he's 80 years old.

"I enjoy retirement a lot," he said, adding that he could still do the job: "I think the concept of experience is overlooked in this country."

In any case, he has plenty of criticism for the current city commissioners. He disagrees with their recent decision to waive an impact fee that apartment developers would normally pay for parkland acquisition in Largo.

He also accuses the elected commissioners of being a mere rubber stamp for the city's hired staff. "Your job is to set policy, not just listen to what the staff says."

For her part, Gerard isn't surprised by Jackson's criticism.

"Bob was always the 'no' guy on the commission," Gerard said. "He would vote 'no.' And instead of trying to convince the rest of us, he would just get mad and bring it up again six months later."

At this stage, the apparent early frontrunner to be Largo's next mayor is vice mayor Brown. A 6-foot-7 chiropractor who has a practice in downtown Largo, he's been on the commission since 2007. He's been elected twice, largely by exuding a positive attitude and pledging to build consensus.

"I enjoy living in Largo. I came back here to start my business and raise a family and I just want to keep it the place that I enjoy living," Brown said.

As for Jackson's criticism that commissioners are a rubber stamp for the city staff, Brown responded: "If that's what you think, you haven't been paying attention."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.

     
   
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