Despite Gerard Demand, She is Defied on Answer to Parks' Closing Signs
by Leo Coughlin
LARGO - Mayor Pat Gerard said she was deadly serious last week when she demanded from the city manager, Mac Craig, an answer to the question of who put up the "closing" signs on two city parks.
But Craig obviously doesn't take Gerard seriously as he had no answer when the question came up again at Tuesday's City Commission meeting.
And this in contrast to the answers that he and Joan Byrne, the Parks and Recreation director, gave to a press inquiry last week. Those responses, it turns out, were untruthful.
The lack of obedience to the mayor and the obstinate refusal by city employees to subordinate themselves to elected officials astounded one former member of the commission.
"I can't believe this is happening," that person said. "I have never seen the relations of elected members and top city officials at such a low point. (Steve) Stanton was always strong in his ways, but he was also courteous and deferential to the commission. You can bet he would have had an answer for the mayor."
Of course, Gerard, who apparently re-captured her authority for about three and a half minutes last week, has undermined herself by not insisting on an answer from Craig, a hired hand.
Craig has made it plain to Gerard and the other elected officials that he will answer questions if and when he feels like it.
During Citizen Comments, Curtis Holmes, now a candidate for the commission, hit the nail on the head when he opined, "It's apparent that there are members of the administration staff who think of the elected commission as nothing more than a speed bump."
"Who is in charge of this city, anyway?" one observer said. "Last week the mayor said the staff had it backward and it looked like she was going to take charge, but now I see she has backed down."
That observer pointed out that Gerard may be in jeopardy in seeking re-election. Bob Jackson, former mayor, has qualified and hopes to recapture the mayor's post. "We need a return to having someone in charge," the observer said.
Also qualified is Curtis Holmes in his challenge to Rodney Woods, who has not yet qualified for re-election, and whose chances of qualifying are of concern with a week to go. Gigi Arntzen has qualified and has an announced opponent in Heleen Abramson, but nothing has been heard lately from Abramson.
The commission Tuesday night approved on first reading a move to amend the charter to allow a shorter qualifying period. That period is now 60 days.
In a city leaderless and in disarray, Byrne, who has built an empire in the Parks and Recreation Department over the past several years, has demonstrated in her own words that she does not know how much it costs to maintain one city park that has been the center of controversy.
When signs were posted - at two different times - advising the public that Bonner Park, located on the western edge of the city on the Intracoastal Waterway, would be closed due to budget constraints, that set off a firestorm of protest from citizens.
The park, 19 acres of natural flora and fauna, would seem not to require much money in maintenance.
But when Gerard was queried by a citizen several weeks ago as to how much it cost to maintain the park she immediately responded by saying, "Eighty thousand dollars."
That right away raised the question of why so much money. Later figures came out that showed a cost of something less than $35,000 and even that figure raised questions with some items that appeared very fishy to many observers.
At the July 21 City Commission meeting, questions were raised about the cost of operating Bonner Park.
Byrne's answer appeared in last week's weekly Manager's Report (July 31), and is a classic example of bureaucratic bafflegab that goes for a sail around a very large lagoon and never reaches home port.
The technique used by Byrne in supposedly answering a commission concern is called "ignoratio elenchi," which means, in simple language, ignoring the question and going on at great length about anything but the answer sought.
This device is used all the time and is recognized by people who watch the "talking head" TV shows, particularly the Sunday morning lineups, where politicians are asked one question but give an answer about something else.
Byrne's panegyric in the Manager's Report is redolent with a "woe is me" theme, about how the department is beset with all kinds of problems explained in terms of the "overall picture."
Byrne takes 976 words to soak up a dozen crying towels and the answer is never forthcoming. Bottom line - no one knows the cost and if Byrne does actually, she isn't revealing it. The suggestion from one commission member is that she actually does not know what it costs to operate Bonner Park.
The arm has been put on two local businesses to help out with the Citizens Academy, an annual "educational" program for a few selected citizens that is designed to boost the politicians.
Wal-Mart is going to kick in $2,500 to help fund the program with the money going to offset the cost of providing dinners to participants. The retailer is also going to provide shirts for the CA attendees. Arby's Catering is going to provide a 35 percent discount on boxed dinners for the program.
"This is fine," one observer said, "but do these companies expect something in return? If the city can't afford to do something, then forget it."
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