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Largo won’t host candidate forum
New rules adhere to state law on spending public funds for an election
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LARGO – The slate of seven declared candidates running in the Largo election this November will get a little less support from the city government, per a new interpretation of a state law that governs how public funds are spent.

The city will no longer provide a candidate forum, broadcast time for candidate statements and space for candidate profiles on the city website. Commissioners approved the second reading to delete those parts of the city election ordinance July 1.

“Basically, the statute now is being interpreted, and I think it’s a reasonable interpretation, is that the city cannot spend any funds in any way with regard to a campaign for the election of a candidate,” explained City Attorney Alan Zimmet during the first reading of the ordinance June 17.

In prior elections, the five-minute statements broadcasted on local government access channel and online profiles on the city website were provided to all candidates equally. But now the Florida Division of Elections determined in an opinion that any use of city resources or staff time, even if it’s provided equally to all candidates, is in violation of state law. The candidate forum, previously held in Largo City Hall, also won’t happen this year.

The city still will provide space for campaign materials in city facilities, such as the library and recreation centers. It doesn’t take any staff time to make room for a stack of brochures on a table, City Clerk Diane Bruner said. Candidates will be responsible for replenishing the brochures as needed.

Commissioner Curtis Holmes voted against the change to the election ordinance July 1, as he did during the previous reading. He opposed a portion of the ordinance, which did not change, that states that the city will notify candidates after removing illegally posted campaign signs only once per election cycle. Candidates are able to retrieve 10 signs from the city.

“What I’d rather see us do (is) if there’s an illegal sign, just have code enforcement pick it up, put it by the dumpster,” Holmes said last month.

He added that he didn’t think the city should have to notify the candidates after removing signs at all, nor penalize campaigns whose opponents might move signs on purpose.

“I don’t know why we’re getting in the middle of this thing here, because this can really get nasty. Those signs are expensive,” he said.

Commissioner Woody Brown said he didn’t think dueling volunteers really maliciously moved their opponents’ signs to places the signs are not allowed, knowing code enforcement would discard them.

“But if there are people putting signs in the right-of-way, clearly in the right-of-way, knowing that they just come get them in the dumpster next week, that happens,” he said, explaining that allowing candidates to retrieve only 10 of their signs helped enforce consequences for continual violations.

Mayor Pat Gerard pointed out that it usually wasn’t the Largo candidates who were guilty of illegally placed signs anyway, but rather volunteers for bigger campaigns.

“It’s a courtesy to call them one time and say, ‘You know, your volunteers are putting these signs in the wrong place. You might want to talk to them,’” she said. “I don’t have any problem, if the staff doesn’t, with giving them one phone call.”

No one else was in favor of changing that rule, which the mayor said had been debated contentiously several times before.

The change passed with a vote of 6-1, with Holmes dissenting.
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