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Northdale tax board dissension continues

By LOGAN D. MABE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000


NORTHDALE -- The property manager is making noises about filing a slander suit against a board member, and maybe the entire board. Meanwhile, a majority of the members are trying to kick off that member, who in turn is trying to kick off another member who he claims smacked him in the face after a meeting.

Oh, and some members may be investigated over allegations that they violated Florida's Sunshine Law.

Amid all this acrimony and angry words, no fewer than three Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies showed up to keep the peace.

Yes, the Northdale Special Tax District is at it again.

The board met Monday night and, in addition to approving a laundry list of improvement projects, reconvened the battle over board member George Helmstetter.

At April's meeting, which Helmstetter and his three supporters missed, the board discussed steps to have Helmstetter removed.

In the interim, Helmstetter countered with a letter to County Commissioner Jan Platt asking for an investigation of the taxing district's administrator. "I have what I consider a reasonable suspicion, no evidence, that there may be some payoffs and or kickbacks among the contractor and (district administrator Diane Montgomery)," Helmstetter wrote. "She continually uses the same contractors and cheats on the bids."

District president Kevin Ambler said he was "personally offended," by the letter. "I think it's improper. I think it's unfair. And I think it's grandstanding in the worst sort of way," he said.

Ambler told Helmstetter he should have been "man enough" to bring his concerns to the board first.

"I'm man enough to say you're a liar," Helmstetter told Ambler.

"I'm man enough to say you're a whacko," Ambler replied.

Board member Manny Garcia moved to table his motion calling for Helmstetter's removal to give him time to review the charges and respond at the next meeting in June. But members did discuss the measure.

Specifically, Helmstetter or any member can be voted off the board for "malfeasance or misfeasance," charges Helmstetter denied.

"Let him prove that I've done either one of these things," Helmstetter said. "I haven't committed any crimes."

Meanwhile, the board voted 7-1, with Helmstetter dissenting, to set aside $50,000 to use for legal fees in the event that Montgomery files a lawsuit against Helmstetter and the board. "There is absolutely going to be litigation against one member," Montgomery said.

Helmstetter read his letter to Platt into the record and added, "There ain't a false statement in there."

Five Board members have criticized Helmstetter for what member Dennis Cooper calls "constant and malicious verbal assaults" on other members and district contractors. Last month, a contractor who services Northdale lakes wrote a letter complaining of a Helmstetter harangue.

"Well, you talk about verbal abuse. Since coming to this board I've taken more verbal abuse than any man should have to take," Helmstetter said. "I took all kinds of abuse from you people."

Helmstetter has his supporters, too. Vice president Jean Hill, treasurer Esther Lutz and member Winfield Webster have all spoken in Helmstetter's defense. But he also faces allegations that he discussed board business with some of them, a violation of the Sunshine Law, personally and through e-mails.

Webster said Helmstetter has visited him, but no board business was discussed. "We talk about Viagra and women," Webster said. "We don't talk about board stuff."

Helmstetter even got a rare endorsement from am audience member. Northdale resident Gary Moore told the board they were overstepping their bounds.

"I elected him and the people in my family elected him," Moore said. "If he offends you, sue him. But just because you don't like him, and you don't, that's no reason to remove him."

But Mark Farrell, a Northdale resident who served on the board in the early 1990s, slammed Helmstetter. "What I've heard here tonight and seen here tonight sickens me," Farrell said. "Absolutely sickens me. . . . I'm glad a lawsuit's being brought. And I hope you get dinged. You won't be able to afford to live in Northdale anymore."

The board will take up the matter again at the next meeting June 13. They will also begin discussing the removal of member Gwynneth Britt, the woman Helmstetter claims hit him in the face.


-- To reach Logan D. Mabe, call 226-3464 or e-mail him at mabe@sptimes.com.

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