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Seminole Heights

Politicians keep finger on pulse of city groups

Neighborhood associations' influence can be seen in the attention given by City Council members.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003

There was a time, not long ago, when the city's leading neighborhood group considered itself lucky to get a visit from a single City Council member.

"We weren't taken seriously," said Steve LaBour, a former president of Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods.

Those days are long gone.

On April 9, six council members showed up for an association meeting.

Before 80 people in the Seminole Heights Garden Center, they listened to neighborhood representatives spell out their hopes, then offered advice on how the groups can become even more influential.

Compliments were frequent. So were good-natured jokes.

Neighborhood leaders know they have a receptive ear. Two council members, Rose Ferlita and incoming member John Dingfelder, are former neighborhood association presidents.

Last month, voters returned Ferlita, Gwen Miller, Mary Alvarez, Shawn Harrison and Linda Saul-Sena to the seven-member board, and elected newcomers Dingfelder and Kevin White.

Only Harrison missed the April 9 meeting.

The new council is expected to be as pro-neighborhood as the last one, which won rave reviews from those pushing for speed bumps and beefed-up code enforcement.

Until a few years ago, council members rarely, if ever, came to Port Tampa Civic Association meetings, said Jill Buford, the association's president. Now they visit all the time.

The last council was also more likely than previous ones to side with neighborhoods on zoning and development issues, she said. Last month, the council told a developer he must meet with the Port Tampa group before it would consider his request.

"I think they were just more willing to help," Buford said.

The new council will strive to get even more information to neighborhood groups so they can make better decisions, said Linda Saul-Sena, the council's new chairman.

"We're going to communicate better," she promised.

In the meantime, neighborhoods can help the council and themselves, Dingfelder said.

Council decisions must be based on "competent, substantial evidence" to withstand court challenges, he said. Translation: "Get your facts in line."

It's not enough to say, "We really don't like it, we really don't want it," Dingfelder said.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or .

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