Largo voters should take care not to miss a Largo City Commission race on the long Nov. 4 general election ballot. Incumbent Commissioner Mary Gray Black is being challenged by first-time candidate Joseph Falanga. The St. Petersburg Times recommends Falanga.
Both candidates were invited to meet with a Times editorial board member to discuss their campaigns and credentials. Black declined. She also was a no-show at the recent Largo Mid-Pinellas Chamber of Commerce forum.
Whether Black was just busy, or whether this was another example of her peculiar approach to governing, is unknown. During her term, Black has refused to meet with the city manager, who is the commission's employee, because she believes to do so would somehow violate the state's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law. It doesn't.
Black works from home, prefers to communicate by e-mail and seems increasingly uncomfortable dealing with people face-to-face. As a result, she sounds surprisingly uninformed on occasion at City Commission meetings.
Black, 69, who was formerly a city clerk, is not a bad commissioner — she sometimes notices things that others overlook in their agenda packets — but she buries herself in the minutiae of government, tends toward negativity and generally is not progressive in her policy decisions.
Those tendencies won her the label of "nitpicker" when she served on the Largo City Commission in the 1970s and '80s. After some unsuccessful campaigns, Black was returned to the commission by voters in 2005 and now she is seeking another three-year term.
Black's opponent in this race couldn't be more different.
Joseph Falanga, 52, is a gregarious man with a lively sense of humor and a desire to be a progressive, positive force in the community.
A former information systems specialist, Falanga moved to Largo six years ago. He and his wife own Pak Mail, a small business at Largo Mall. Falanga has been active in the Largo Mid-Pinellas Chamber of Commerce, which he has served as chairman in 2004 and as a board member for five years. He is the current treasurer.
Falanga has also been a member and officer of the Greater Largo Library Foundation, is a graduate of Leadership Pinellas and completed the Largo Citizens Academy in 2006.
Falanga has picked up details about the inner workings of city government through service in 2007 on the Largo Planning Board, which reviews development plans and advises the City Commission, and his service in this challenging budget year on the Largo Finance Advisory Board, which scrutinizes the city budget. He became familiar with the city charter when he was appointed to the Charter Review Committee in 2005.
"If you're going to live in a community, you've got to be involved," Falanga says, and adds that apathy "bothers me something awful."
If elected, Falanga has several priorities. First, he wants to make sure the city is ready to seize opportunities when the economy turns around. He said that means making sure the West Bay Drive plan is completed, enough land is assembled downtown to offer to a developer, and city codes and procedures have been streamlined to help businesses get off to a fast start.
A second priority is to boost the involvement of the business community in revitalizing Clearwater-Largo Road — an ongoing city effort that Falanga likens to "a 15-year root canal."
A third priority is to review the status of Tri-City Plaza, which Falanga fears will be hurt when the planned town center project on the other side of U.S. 19 opens. Falanga believes the large expanse of land now occupied by Tri-City could be a prime spot for new shopping and even a stadium-seat movie theater.
Falanga said he is focusing on business opportunities and redevelopment in this campaign because he believes that is a way to grow the city tax base and provide new revenue for other city needs, including sidewalks and streetlights. He also wants Largo to become a place people come to rather than just pass through. He mentions the need for more quality shops, more restaurants, perhaps a piano bar, even miniature golf.
Falanga knows that the city likely faces more budget cuts next year. He already has met with city department heads and heard their plans to try to reduce their budgets and increase efficiency. Falanga said he believes the city needs to do a better job of maintaining city properties on a regular schedule, to avoid problems like those that arose at the wastewater treatment plant and the city clock tower.
Falanga may not have Black's elected experience, but he has creative ideas, a can-do attitude and a passion to be involved in the Largo community.
For Largo City Commission Seat 1, the Times recommends Joseph Falanga.