By Leo Coughlin
The Bookmark Café situation is not the most important issue in Largo, but it took up a lot of time at the City Commission meeting last week and, more importantly, demonstrated another screw-up in the city.
The screw-up at first blush was that the city was playing - to use the expression of Mayor Pat Gerard - a "gotcha" game with the leaseholder of the coffee shop in the Largo Library.
But then came information at the end of last week that turned the whole issue on its head.
The City Commission - and the City Manager - were kept in the dark and not told the whole story.
It turns out there is a complaint file on the operation of the library's coffee shop that is extensive and goes back several years.
Patrons complain of rudeness, lack of cleanliness, food not absolutely fresh, and on and on. The complaints are not rare, they are frequent and substantial.
If commission members had this information there is no question that their reaction to what Henry Schubert, an assistant city manager, presented would have been 180 degrees different.
As it was, commission members were drawn to the defense of the leaseholder, Dalal Mansour. It seemed she was being treated unfairly. The sentiment - and the actual words used by the mayor herself - was that the city had become a "discourteous landlord."
But then came the end of the week and the news of a hefty complaint file.
That development alone gives rise to a host of questions some of them going to the very heart of efficient government.
First, why did Schubert not disclose this vital information? He not only deprived the commission of facts that would bear on any decision to be made, but he kept his own boss, Norton Craig, the city manager, in the dark.
Does Craig now go on in his job, day to day, with doubts that he is being fully informed on all developments in the city he has the responsibility of running? Not good. Very bad, in fact.
As Schubert stumbled through a presentation regarding the coffee shop at last week's commission meeting there seemed to be a lot of higgledy-piggledy bafflegab.
Factual elements according to Schubert - A 270 day notification of an intent to renew the lease was required, leaseholder failed to comply with this, letter from Schubert seemed to hold open invitation to leaseholder to renew, leaseholder's CPA firm responded that leaseholder wanted to renew, was the basic message. So why, commission members wanted to know, is a Request for Proposal being sought?
Discussion at Tuesday night's commission meeting brought out some of these salient facts.
But the big - and nagging - question is baffling. Why would Schubert withhold this vital information? How long had he known about the complaint file? Why wouldn't he keep his boss, Craig, in the information loop? Why hasn't something been done about the complaints that have come in over the years?
Obviously, operation of the coffee shop in the library is seen by most patrons as a city activity. In fact, in some complaints the leaseholder is referred to as a "city employee." A thing like the coffee shop is seen as a city activity. All that happens reflects on the city.
It is grossly unfair to Craig - and the City Commission - that they all have been blindsided by information that came late in the proceedings rather than up front.
Most folks believe that not keeping your boss apprised of critical information is a major sin.
Schubert clearly wanted to go ahead with an RFP. Only sympathy on the part of the commission for the leaseholder stopped that. And now it appears Schubert had good reason for wanting to get rid of the leaseholder, but he did not lay out all the facts.
An unintended irony out of last week's meeting is that commission members and officials got a tutorial on how to stonewall (they don't like to answer questions over there at Festung Largo).
Keeping information close to the vest seems to have penetrated the citadel of operations where essential information was kept from the one guy who should know everything.
Of course, public records laws notwithstanding as to answering questions - true, one is not always constrained to answer - but if public figures, particularly politicians, stonewall, "it don't look good," as a fellow once said.
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