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Mayor's race is short on choices

The three candidates don't stand far apart on issues, so personality may determine the March 14 election.

If voters are looking for a clear-cut choice in the mayor's race, they won't find one listening to candidates' stances on the issues.

Truth is, Jim Miles, Bob Jackson and Gerald McClelland don't stand far apart on matters of great consequence in Largo, be it downtown redevelopment or the proposed expansion of the library.

Their resumes don't cast vast degrees of separation either. Each of these men could write a short history on Largo government. Miles, 78, has been a commissioner 18 years, and 66-year-old Jackson for 25 years. McClelland, 67, sat alongside them as Largo's city attorney for 24 years before retiring in 1998.

So what will decide the first mayoral race Largo has seen in six years?

The answer lies, in part, with the man leaving the office. Mayor Thomas Feaster, arguably the strongest mayor in recent Largo memory, has generated pro-Feaster and anti-Feaster camps in recent years. Which camp voters belong to may help determine who they vote for in the March 14 election.

Feaster has publicly endorsed Miles to be his successor.

"I can't think of anybody that I would want to emulate more than Thom (Feaster) as a mayor," Miles said. "I have the baton."

Miles said he is the best candidate because he will hold onto the "reins" of downtown redevelopment efforts, which Feaster accelerated when he was elected in 1993.

But Jackson is not so sure Feaster's endorsement was much of a boost for Miles campaign.

"I think that there is a consensus in Largo that they want to see a change," Jackson said.

Jackson said he recognized a growing dissatisfaction with Feaster in 1999 when Feaster endorsed former Commissioner Harriet Crozier for a commission seat, while Jackson endorsed one of her opponents, Mary Laurance. In a major upset, Laurance won. Previously, it was almost unheard of for Feaster's pick to lose a commission race.

Although Jackson said he thinks Feaster was a good leader, some residents began to think him overly aggressive. If elected mayor, Jackson said, he would be more open and willing to bring people to a consensus. "I think it's probably a change of style more than substance," Jackson said.

Both Jackson and McClellandsaid they were approached by residents who asked them to run against Feaster, before Feaster announced this term would be his last.

"A lot of the employees of the city urged me to run," McClelland said. "I would guess they didn't like the alternatives."

Feaster downplays his role in the upcoming election.

"A lot of times in Largo, the issues have not been the issue," Feaster said, adding that the quality of candidates also plays a role. "And, in some instances, it has been a personality thing."

Regardless of who the winner is, however, residents may not see any new direction _ at least not any time soon.

Miles, Jackson and McClelland said they would move forward with efforts to redevelop downtown, a $13-million project that promises to stay near the top of Largo's agenda for at least three years _ the length of the mayoral term. They all want to see some sort of a development, perhaps including residential and commercial space, on 8 key acres downtown where City Hall and Ulmer Park now sit.

Jackson and Miles said they would be willing to preserve some green space on the development, rather than do away with Ulmer Park entirely. McClelland said he wants to review public opinion before making a decision.

All three candidates said they want to see the library building expanded.

Several sites have been proposed, but Miles and Jackson said the best option they've heard so far is the land on the east side of Largo Central Park. They would be willing to issue bonds in order to pay for a new facility in a timely manner.

McClelland said he has no favorite site yet in mind and wants to hear more about the options before deciding. But he, too, would borrow money as a last resort.

All three candidates tout their leadership and negotiation skills as assets to the position. Miles gained leadership experience as a colonel for the U.S. Army; Jackson during his days as a principal for Pinellas County Schools and McClelland as a skilled lawyer and negotiator for the city. Each of them is now retired.

The only issue that elicits significant differences is annexation. Miles and Jackson, current commissioners involved in a complicated disputes with Clearwater and Pinellas Park over annexation, say they have tried to resolve the issue without going to court. Both say they hope to come to some agreement with the cities.

McClelland said he thinks Largo has taken the matter too far and is unfairly forcing unincorporated residents to become annexed. He would take a much softer stance on annexation, McClelland said, and would oppose spending tax dollars to fight the issues in court.

"The people are going to have to decide whether they want a continuation or whether they want to take a new direction," McClelland said.