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Tax board ousts outspoken member

In a 5-4 vote, the group rids itself of a member accused of turning contract reviews into debates that went too far.

By LOGAN D. MABE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


NORTHDALE -- Most people outside of the quiet suburb of Northdale have never heard of George F. Helmstetter. But Monday night he accomplished something no other member of a neighborhood tax board has ever done in Hillsborough County.

He got kicked off by his fellow trustees.

In the culmination of a months-long feud between two bitter factions of the Northdale Special Tax District board, Helmstetter, 69, was removed from his elected post for malfeasance and misfeasance. At least, that was the letter of law cited when the 5-4 vote came down at the district's meeting at Gaither High School.

In truth, though, Helmstetter got the axe for being a pain in the neck. Special tax districts are the minor leagues of government. Set up throughout the county, they assess taxes to maintain and beautify their areas. In Northdale, that means collecting and spending about $400,000 a year to keep the common areas mowed and the lakes looking nice.

Elected two years ago, Helmstetter brought a fierce fiscal conservatism to the Northdale board. The retired teacher and business owner questioned every contract, and most contractors, at length.

But over time, a majority of the board decided, Helmstetter went too far.

He was accused of verbally assaulting the district's part-time property manager, of dressing down contractors who did business with the district, and of raising such a stink at board meetings that normal, workaday business couldn't get done.

And he yelled at people. District president Kevin Ambler said Helmstetter was not being targeted for his "bad manners or rude language. That's not a reason to remove an elected official. It's a serious, serious matter, indeed."

"What I do object to, and what I do think counts as misfeasance, is literally your incompetence as a public official. ... You are the sole instigator of confusion and acrimony on this board," Ambler told Helmstetter.

Helmstetter stood up and told Ambler: "You are prejudiced, fascist, and whatever else I can think of. You are a total dictator on this board."

Helmstetter had his defenders. Vice President Jean Hill suggested everyone just get over it and get on with business.

Esther Lutz, another Helmstetter ally, said he "just has bad manners, but I don't think he has done anything wrong." And member Winfield Webster, Helmstetter's close friend, said, "sometimes you have to raise your voice."

But they, and Helmstetter, were on the short end of the vote.

The ordinance creating the district provides for removal of a board member for, "failing to discharge the duties of his position." Ambler, a lawyer, said a legal opinion from the county attorney's office confirmed that the final decisions rests with the taxing board.

As he left the room afterward, Helmstetter said: "I'm not going to fight it or anything. Listen, I had a triple bypass last year. I don't need another one."

In a second vote, without Helmstetter, the board decided not to remove member Gwynneth Britt. Helmstetter had accused her of smacking him in the face at a meeting two months ago, and Webster requested a vote on her removal.

But Helmstetter has filed a criminal complaint, and Britt faces arraignment on a misdemeanor battery charge in several weeks.

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