Largo's two City Commission candidates faced off in their only joint forum Tuesday afternoon and agreed on at least one thing: They're nothing alike.
"In a race like ours, it is seldom ever that you have two people that view city business so differently than the two of us do," said Curtis Holmes, who is challenging incumbent Commissioner Rodney Woods in the Nov. 3 election.
Just before the Largo/Mid-Pinellas Chamber of Commerce forum kicked off, Woods said the choice that voters have is clear.
The men, who are candidates for Largo's only contested race, have a contentious history. Holmes, a local activist, has been highly critical of Woods.
Tensions came to a head last year, when Holmes filed a complaint against Woods with the Florida Commission on Ethics. Holmes claimed Woods, who is African-American, had acted inappropriately by raising funds for a city memorial to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The commission dismissed the complaint.
In recent months, both men vowed to run on their own merits and to put their differences behind them. For much of the debate, the candidates remained focused on the issues. But at times, their past friction bubbled to the surface.
Holmes told the group at the chamber luncheon at the East Bay Country Club that he had a lot of ideas for saving the city money that he had shared with city leaders. They included having civic and church groups decorate Largo Central Park for Christmas and having public works staff, rather than contractors, do city projects, such as sidewalks.
"All of those ideas were summarily ignored," Holmes said. "Why? I do not know."
Woods offered an answer.
"You don't just throw ideas up there and hope that they stick," Woods said. "Some ideas probably don't go anywhere because they're just not good."
Holmes told the group of about 50 that the city wasn't business-friendly. And he gave an example of a new merchant who was chastised by code enforcement about his business sign shortly after he set up shop.
"You don't set up a hostile environment for an employer," Holmes said. "You encourage them to come in."
He also said business downtown could be boosted by narrowing West Bay Drive and rerouting traffic along Eighth Avenue SW.
Woods said the city can try to fill empty shops by marketing the area, working with developers and offering tax breaks when possible. But he said there was no easy fix for the city's economic woes. There are, however, plans in place that will encourage economic development when the economy turns around, he said.
Asked about potential budget cuts, Holmes said the No. 1 job of municipal government is public safety: police, fire and sanitation.
"If you get something beyond that, that's a luxury," he said.
Woods said other services were valued by residents, too. Community feedback is imperative before making decisions, he said.
"It's their money and they should be the ones to tell us where they want to spend it," Woods said.
Toward the end of the forum, Holmes criticized Woods for being a "team player."
"When you walk into a voting booth, are you going to vote for someone that plays for the team or are you voting for someone that works for you?" Holmes asked the group.
Woods said he thought his vision was closer to the vision of most residents.
"Yes I am a team player," Woods said. "That means you build consensus. That means you use your head to figure out how to get along with people."
The men also clashed behind the scenes because Woods did not agree to participate in other candidate forums.
Woods had said he didn't want to participate in partisan forums in a nonpartisan race. And there was no formal offer for another forum Holmes wanted to have at City Hall.
Holmes e-mailed Woods and accused Woods of "dodging" him. At the close of the forum, Woods turned to Holmes.
"I'm not hiding from you, Curtis. I'm not afraid of you," Woods said. "I'm right here with you."