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Dispute over decorations escalates

Tax district board members vote to sell the controversial holiday decorations. The Christmas tree goes for $50, but the menorah was apparently bought for $1 and donated.

By LOGAN D. MABE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 14, 2001


NORTHDALE -- Acrimony and rancor should have been put to rest when the Northdale Special Tax District retired its symbols of peace and joy. Instead, board members are still arguing over the fate of a lighted menorah and Christmas tree.

The subject of sore debate since last winter, the board divested itself of its holiday decorations at Monday's meeting.

Board members voted to sell the Christmas tree to Northdale resident Joe Stickles for $50. But several board members learned Monday that the menorah had already been dispatched. Board member Dennis Cooper quietly acquired the sacred Jewish symbol for $1 in July, the same night the board voted to "dispose of" the items. He subsequently donated it to a Jewish organization, he said.

"What were the bids?" asked board member Winfield Webster, who spearheaded the campaign to get rid of the decorations. "I understand Mr. Cooper bid $1, so I want to know what's going on."

"I'm kind of outraged," Cooper said. "I did not buy the menorah. At the July meeting you passed a motion to either give it away or sell it. I believed I was the most qualified person to help dispose of the menorah. This infamous dollar is ridiculous. All I did was help (property manager Diane Montgomery) dispose of the menorah."

But Webster continued to press the issue, saying he called Montgomery in mid-July and was told that she did not have the authority to sell the items.

"Someone's telling stories," said board member Jean Hill, who sided with the majority to do away with the decorations.

In August, the board voted to accept bids for the items. Cooper and several other board members who knew the menorah had been sold were absent from that meeting.

Montgomery said she did not tell members that Cooper had bought the menorah because "I was not going to be beat up over this. You all have continuously beat me up over these things."

Webster was miffed because he intended to bid on each item. He offered $250 for the menorah and $100 for the Christmas tree.

But Webster soon became emotional and left the meeting before a decision on the tree was made. "I'm sick to my stomach," Webster said, rising from the dais. "I'm sorry. When I get upset, I have to leave."

In his absence, the remaining five board members voted to accept Stickles' $50 bid for the Christmas tree.

Anne Castens, a vocal opponent of the decorations since they were purchased for $2,200 last November, wanted to know what happened to the menorah.

"It's a valid question," Cooper said. "And the board has a right to know. But the organization (that Cooper donated the menorah to) does not deserve to be yelled at or screamed at. I will tell at the next meeting. I don't want somebody attacked. There's too much screaming and abuse going on."

- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at (813) 226-3464.

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