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Candidates try to stake out their turf

At their first major forum on Tuesday, Largo commission candidates defined their roles in the upcoming election.

Mayor Bob Jackson, who was first elected to the Largo City Commission in 1974, said he had been committed to progress during those three decades.

"I would like to be considered the economic development candidate," Jackson told the audience at the Largo/Mid-Pinellas Chamber of Commerce forum at East Bay Country Club.

Commissioner Pat Gerard, challenging Jackson for mayor in the March 7 voting, said the city is at a crossroads and needs a new leader to handle big-city problems such as crime, traffic and homelessness.

"We need proactive leadership that will move us forward on these issues," said Gerard, who was first elected to the commission in 2000.

Ernie Bach, who served as commissioner from 1987 to 1990, recounted his experience as a former city leader and consumer advocate.

"I gleaned a lot of experience, which I utilized statewide and nationally through the years and made a lot of contacts, and I hope to bring that back to you," Bach said.

Several of the candidates talked about fostering cooperation in the community and in government.

Rodney Woods, who is running against Bach, said he wanted to get people involved in government and "to bring civility between Largo" and Pinellas County officials.

Gerard also talked about building bridges with the county. But Jackson stood by the city's tough line, especially in regard to annexation.

Gigi Arntzen, who also made a run for the commission last year, spoke of the need for strong, cooperative city leadership.

"Positive, energetic and solid leadership is needed on our commission," Arntzen said.

Commissioner Jean Halvorsen, who is running against Arntzen, maintained that city leaders have been able to find common ground.

"Along the way we have cooperated or we wouldn't have what we have," Halvorsen said.

Candidates also had a chance to share their opinions on the charter amendments that also will be on the ballot.

Woods and Gerard were clearly in favor of the amendment that would allow commissioners and employees to support city political campaigns.

Bach, however, said he was "kind of torn" on the issue:

"In the past, it was done differently. You did it quietly and behind the scenes."

Jackson and Gerard didn't see eye to eye on the charter amendment that would expand the mayor's powers. Jackson supports the amendment, which gives the mayor the authority to appoint the members of citizen advisory boards with commission approval.

But Gerard said, "The mayor's powers are fine the way they are."

Next week, the candidates will have another chance to speak on the issues. The chamber will sponsor a public forum at City Hall.

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

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