Commissioner-elect John Carroll, left, and Mayor-elect Woody Brown, interviewed separately at Proino Breakfast Club on West Bay Drive Aug. 25, discuss their visions and positions on the state and future of Largo.
LARGO – This year was the first time Mayor-elect Woody Brown ran uncontested in his bid for Largo office since deciding to join the commission in 2007.
It also marks Commissioner-elect John Carroll’s first bid for office, but he’s no stranger to leadership in Largo, having retired from the Largo Police Department as police chief after 33 years of service with the department.
Both have claimed their seats without appearing on the ballot after no other candidates stepped up to run against them before the qualifying period ended Aug. 15. Three other seats on the Largo Commission are up for election in November. But before those campaigns kick off in earnest, the Largo Leader sat with Brown and Carroll to talk about their priorities, Largo’s future and what it means to be a leader.
Out of respect for Florida’s open government laws, the two were interviewed separately at Proino’s Breakfast Club Aug. 25.
Building a better Largo
To start, Brown said the city had to make it easier for private investors to fix up abandoned properties by establishing a program for forgiving code enforcement liens. Currently, potential buyers will ask the code enforcement board to reduce the penalties against a home before finalizing the sale, and the board must trust on faith that the new owners will follow through on bringing the home into compliance with the city’s standards.
Brown said he’d rather see a program similar to a city of St. Petersburg one that promises lien forgiveness after the property is improved.
“(Investors) don’t have risk, as far as getting those liens reduced,” he said. “That increases dollars coming into our neighborhoods.”
Brown also wants to improve Largo’s pedestrian accessibility by expanding and repairing its sidewalks. Local businesses would benefit greatly if school board and Largo Medical Center employees could access the West Bay Drive area on their lunch breaks without jumping into their cars, Brown said.
He also said he would suggest each commissioner taking a turn to sit in on the city manager’s weekly meeting with the department directors.
Carroll said the city could do more to recruit, attract and retain its employees.
“Largo should not be a stepping stone to other employers out there,” he said.
Content employees take more pride in their work and provide better service to residents, making for a lasting impact, he said.
He also supported a multi-year, standardized plan for growing city staff in step with the growth of the city itself. Employees within all departments, from public works to police, have to be able to keep up with service demands.
“There hasn’t really been a plan to do that,” he said.
With that, Carroll said he supported closing the enclaves in the city, to avoid the duplication of efforts from overlapping jurisdictions.
“I don’t believe in hostile annexation, but there are plenty of potholes in the city of Largo, where one side of the street is Largo and the other side is not in Largo,” he said.
Brown and Carroll differed sharply on Greenlight Pinellas, a plan to improve bus and eventually provide rail transportation options in the county, funded through an additional 1 percent sales tax.
Carroll was opposed to the plan, especially in how it would be funded. He feared another sales tax initiative might jeopardize public support for the existing Penny for Pinellas tax, which has funded many needed capital improvement projects across the county. He agreed that transportation needed to be addressed in Pinellas.
“There is a problem,” he said. “I’m not really sure that there’s a solution in an extra penny tax.”
Transit options such as rail and improved bus service work better in a more vertical community, he said.
“Here, people want to go where they want to go, when they want to go there,” he said. “There’s nothing people hate more than being behind a PSTA bus.”
The first step in alleviating traffic issues would be to finish existing road construction projects. There’s no excuse for the length of time Ulmerton Road, for example, has been under construction, he said. Carroll also worried that Largo’s position in the center of the county would make it subordinate to the needs of other communities in such a plan.
Brown viewed Largo’s centrality to the plan as a positive. In the Greenlight Pinellas plan, four rail stops will be built within Largo city limits, more than any other city.
“Ultimately, I think that the plan as it’s proposed … will be really beneficial, in the long run, to the city of Largo,” Brown said.
He did have concerns for how the train would run down East Bay Drive and how accessible and pedestrian-friendly the stations should be built. And he said he would prefer a regional perspective to transportation improvements, rather than focusing on Pinellas County alone. But Brown thought increasing transportation alternatives would create job opportunities and boost tourism.
“The most vocal opponents, I think, of Greenlight Pinellas – they just don’t want to spend any money,” he said. “They fail to recognize that the cost of improving the status quo is pretty exorbitant as well. If we have to put two more lanes down East Bay and four more lanes down U.S. 19 in five years, that’s not free.”
Brown and Carroll said they were pleased to see the economy slowly improving and agreed that it meant a better outlook for the city of Largo.
“Now is the time not to just go back to doing things the way things we did before the economic downturn,” Carroll said. “Now is a good time to prioritize and examine what we want to be doing five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now.”
Setting the priorities and long-term plans for the city is largely how commissioners should take a leadership role, rather than merely watching and managing the budget, Carroll said.
“I think the budget is a way to get things done. The budget shouldn’t dictate leadership decisions,” he said.
Carroll said he benefited from a “multi-generational perspective,” as the son of a Largo businessman and a father of a current Largo homeowner. As a longtime Largo resident himself, Carroll said he didn’t think his perspective on the city would be too focused on the police department, despite his background.
“I get a lot of feedback from a variety of sources, both criticisms and compliments,” he said.
Brown said he’s been most proud of the little ways he’s been able to help the residents of Largo in the last seven years. About five years ago, a resident called him about an unused telephone pole that had been left in the middle of the sidewalk, big enough to keep a tricycle from pedaling past it.
Within a week of the call, Brown had connected with the right people to have the pole removed.
“I’m mostly proud of being accessible so that people can come to me when they can’t seem to find an answer in other avenues and able to take care of little problems like that for people,” he said.
The increased accessibility of all of Largo’s commission has been a recent improvement, he added.
“I just think we have a more diverse commission. We have a commission that’s more in touch with a larger number of people that live in Largo,” Brown said.
Carroll admitted that, as “corny” as it sounded, he enjoyed serving Largo.
“I’m looking forward to an opportunity to continue to serve. I enjoy the process of problem solving and helping the residents of the city,” he said. “I enjoy government when it works well, and I really resent it, like everyone else does, when it doesn’t work well.”