LARGO – Mayor Pat Gerard dropped her gavel on a critic March 21, silencing the man who then left the podium after being approached by a police officer.
City Manager Steve Stanton said his staff is producing a booklet for those who plan to address the City Commission in the future, “so we don’t need the police to maintain decorum.”
City activist Curtis Holmes was the second speaker during Gerard’s first full meeting as mayor. He rose during the public comments part of the commission agenda to continue his accusations that Gerard had acted in a conflict of interest last year when she lobbied for the city to lease property to her employer.
Holmes opened his remarks by asking Gerard for 10 minutes to speak as a group representative, instead of the three minutes the City Commission usually allows individuals to speak.
Holmes contended that, as founder of a 527-tax exempt political action organization called “Friends of Largo,” he represented other city residents. Friends of Largo was created with $20,000 donated by a local businessman to support the candidacies of two incumbents who were eventually voted out of office. Those candidates were Gerard’s opponent Mayor Bob Jackson and Jean Halvorsen, who lost to new Commissioner Gigi Arntzen.
Gerard told Holmes he could only have three minutes. He argued with her that while the commission has discussed changing the time limits in the past, no formal action had ever been taken.
Gerard rejected his contention, simply repeating that he would have just three minutes.
Then Holmes launched into an attack on Gerard, saying that he was continuing his battle to have her punished for having voted in the alleged conflict of interest.
That’s when Gerard interrupted him and ruled him out of order.
“Sit down or I’ll have you removed,” Gerard said.
As a police officer approached the podium, Holmes turned to him and asked, “Are you going to arrest me?”
The officer nodded and Holmes returned to his seat, saying to Gerard, “I’m not dropping this. You have laid down the gauntlet.” He then rose and left the meeting.
The state Commission on Ethics, in a March 3 ruling, said Gerard may have violated an ethics code by voting in September on whether her employer should be given permission to locate an arts program for teenagers in the former city library building in Largo Central Park. But the commission dismissed the allegation after a report by an investigator recommended dismissal. The report said though she had probably violated state laws, no further action should be taken.
Gerard is an employee, and vice president, of Family Resources Inc., a non-profit social services organization. For weeks, she said in October, she had wrestled with her employer’s need for a new location for its “Youth Art Corps,” a free program for underprivileged and socially challenged youth.
Gerard wanted to propose the city provide the 35,000-square-foot former library building for the art program. But she was afraid she might be in a conflict of interest so asked City Attorney Alan Zimmet for his opinion.
Zimmet later said he not only advised her there was no conflict of interest, but that she was obligated by law to vote on the issue.
With this assurance, Gerard lobbied the city staff for support and had the proposal put onto the City Commission’s Oct. 18 agenda. The commission was told Family Resources had to find a home within the next two weeks or lose the grant funding this program.
All of the commissioners voiced support for the arts program and some said they might approve its location in the former library. But, none was willing to commit by Nov. 1 to any use for the former library building until all options had been reviewed by a newly formed committee.
The only action taken by the commission, in which Gerard voted, was to support trying to find city space for the arts program, but not in the library. Gerard voted for this motion that passed with only former Mayor Bob Jackson opposing it, saying he didn’t feel there was adequate space in city buildings.
In the end, Gerard’s vote made no difference in the outcome.