Gerard Upbraids Craig at Public Meeting for Usurping Commission Power
by Leo Coughlin
LARGO- Several weeks ago, a sign appeared at two parks in Largo.
It said -
"Due to budget cuts this park will be closing"The locations were Bonner Park, at the western edge of the city and the Nature Preserve that is just east of Central Park down where Highland Avenue ends, south of East Bay.
That was enough to draw a large crowd to City Hall, especially when another sign appeared some days later that included the advice for citizens to voice their concerns about the closings at City Hall.
Mayor Pat Gerard rapidly and summarily last week jerked up the city manager with an attempt to put the horse before the cart, where it should be and has not been. Again, another crowd of protesters was on hand.
The City Commission makes decisions, not the staff, Gerard made plain to Mac Craig.
She told Craig, sitting next to her on the dais, "You really made us look like idiots. I don't appreciate it."
Craig's job may be on the line. Preventing the staff from overriding elected officials is one of the main elements of his job.
"It is incredible that two signs of this kind would appear at those parks and he knows nothing about it," one observer said.
"Who is in control of the administration?"
Another long time observer of city matters said, "Why did Mac punish Lester for doing his job correctly yet he's made no move against a department head who has clearly violated city policy and embarrassed the commission?"
The reference was to Craig suspending Lester Aradi, the police chief, for the disciplinary action the chief took on an internal department matter that did not affect the public. Aradi was suspended for three days without pay. In the matter of the parks Craig seems to have been blind to the actions under the supervision of Joan Byrne, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, which does affect the public.
Gerard has virtually assured the public that at least Bonner Park, the main bone of contention, will not close.
When the first round of citizen outrage over a possible closing erupted a couple of weeks ago, one citizen asked how much it cost to operate Bonner Park.
Gerard responded, after looking down at some material before her, "Eighty thousand dollars a year."
That immediately raised questions of why it took so much money for a park that is not monitored all day and has minimum upkeep.
It turns out the figure is wrong. According to city calculations the operating cost of Bonner Park is $34,810 annually and that, in turn, raises the question of why so much?
These are some of the cost items listed -
Contractual mowing - $5,300 (more than $100 a week and that much mowing is not done); pest control - $800 (in a nature preserve?); custodial supplies - $500 (??); opening and closing of park - $3,575 (to swing gates shut, empty trash cans); allocation of 25 percent of supervisor's salary - ($18,500; this means that a supervisor somewhere is getting $74,000 a year).
A theory held by one observer is that the listed costs at Bonner Park are largely bogus and the money is actually being used elsewhere.
"A supervisor gets seventy-four thousand dollars a year? I'm sure the taxpayers will be overjoyed to hear this," that observer said, "especially when so many of them at citizen comments said they were of very moderate means. Also, most of people protesting the closing of Bonner said they volunteered for a lot of the work there. I wonder what the man who said he wouldn't mind paying more taxes if Bonner Park were to remain open would say now?"
It is clear that the city administration, and most likely including Craig if you look at all the facts, had every intention of closing the parks. Byrne did not want that and aroused the public.
To bear this out, a Manager's Report of several weeks ago reported that the city attorney had reviewed the deeds by which Bonner Park was conveyed to the city.
That was done, obviously, to make sure there were no impediments under deed covenants to closing the park.
Alan Zimmet reported in his examination of the deed, according to the Manager's Report, that "There is no requirement that the properties be used for recreational purposes."
The city got a state grant in 1978 for $37,000 in connection with the park that stipulated the park be used for recreation purposes but if the park is used otherwise the money would be refunded to the state.
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