Largo commission candidates square off in forum

Commissioner Curtis Holmes, left, is facing a challenge from Eric Gerard for Seat 3 on the City Commission.

LARGO — In the race for City Commission seat 3, challenger Eric Gerard says Largo needs to take a more aggressive role in being a leader in Pinellas County. Incumbent Curtis Holmes says the results from his leadership speak for themselves. Voters will decide Nov. 3 which message resonates more.

Issues that have dominated national headlines for months were brought down to a local level Sept. 24 when the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce hosted an online candidate forum between Holmes and Gerard.

COVID-19, racial injustice, and climate change were among the topics discussed by the candidates in the hourlong event that pitted Holmes, who is seeking his fourth term in office, against Gerard, who is looking for his first.

In his opening remarks, Holmes emphasized his 11 years of experience on the commission and said it has produced results.

“Since my time in office, I can say safely I have saved the taxpayers in the city of Largo millions of dollars,” he said.

He cited his efforts to change the election process so commissioners now have four-year terms, cutting down on the number of costly elections the city would have to fund.

Gerard said the city of Largo is doing good work, but it needs to be a leader in Pinellas on issues such as affordable housing and efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“I love this city,” he said. “I’m very proud of it. I’m proud of our forward thinking and the initiatives that we take to continually increase the standard of living for all of our residents.”

COVID crisis

When asked what singular issue will warrant the most attention of the commission in 2021, both candidates agreed that it would be the effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

Holmes said the financial uncertainty moving ahead will be a concern because of unknowns regarding property values, and revenues from sales and gas taxes.

“This is going to be a dance on the budget, because you don’t know about the COVID effect that really has not been felt yet,” he said.

Gerard said the pandemic’s effect on the community would also require much attention, pointing to the jobless rate and struggles individuals and businesses are having.

Candidates were also asked what they would do if they had a $1 million grant to put in any one place. Holmes said he would put it toward the city’s mounting contribution to the police and fire departments’ pension fund.

Gerard said he would put it toward helping those impacted by the pandemic.

“I would probably put that into a trust fund to help support the families and the businesses that are suffering,” he said. “The eviction crisis is just waiting and we may be falling off a cliff as early as December and people are going to have a hard time maintaining their homes and even paying their utility bills.”

Holmes said he is pleased with the way the city has helped businesses by establishing grant programs, some of which are funded through code enforcement fines that he wants to pursue more aggressively.

Moving forward, he said the best thing the city can do to help job retention and creation is to keep government out of the way.

“A lot of the times government passes so many rules and regulations it becomes an impediment to the business community. It’s a matter of rolling some of those back, and I have been successful in rolling some of these things back,” he said, citing his efforts to scale back an ordinance that would’ve required businesses to purchase costly monument signs.

Gerard also applauded the city’s ingenuity for using nuisance abatement funds for grants, but said the city needs to do a better job of letting people know that both city and county funding is available.

He said he would also tap reserve funds to help people now and would address a lack of affordable and workforce housing, which he said would help businesses attract and maintain good employees.

Discussing diversity

The candidates also discussed another nationwide issue when they were asked what policies, if any, would they pursue to promote social and racial justice in Largo?

Gerard pointed out the city has a sizable minority population and yet no people of color in any of its top executive management and just one on an advisory board.

He said the city needs to do a better job of actively recruiting more minorities and lead by action, not words.

“It’s easy to say that we care, but as a dear friend of mine who used to say all the time, don’t tell me you love me, do loving things,” he said. “We need to aggressively pursue folks of color, minorities and invite them into the city.”

Holmes responded by saying the police and fire departments are diverse, but agreed that the administration is lacking diversity.

However, he said he brought up the issue with City Manager Henry Schubert who said the city doesn’t discriminate and hires the best applicants available.

“We don’t discriminate against anybody,” Holmes said.

Climate change

Candidates also discussed a concern that could affect the long-term future of the region when they were asked what they would do to help reduce the effect of climate change in Largo and Pinellas County.

Holmes said “there’s very little the city can do,” but it has taken several sustainability efforts, such as working to change its fleet to electric vehicles, putting in recharging stations, changing street lights to LEDs, and is building a newer, more efficient City Hall.

Gerard agreed that the city has made great advancements, but said it needs to take a more regional approach to make a difference.

“What I’m excited about and what I want to see promoted and supported aggressively by the city is our involvement with things like the Pinellas Sustainability and Resiliency Effort,” he said.