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Front Porch advances a step

A strained relationship in the urban renewal effort appears mended, but the shouting matches haven't ended.

By LEONORA LaPETER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Two key players representing Gov. Jeb Bush's Front Porch initiative came together Thursday night, agreeing to end the bickering that has stalled the local urban renewal effort.

For weeks, Faye Jackson, the group's community liaison, has found her job on the line. Rodney Bennett, chairman of the Governor's Revitalization Council of South St. Petersburg, even put her forced resignation on a meeting agenda.

Thursday night, her job was no longer in jeopardy. Jackson and Bennett, meeting with Tallahassee officials who are monitoring the Front Porch effort, had repaired their relationship earlier in the day.

"Your chairman dealt with some tough issues, some issues he had deep-seated feelings about, but he put some of his personal feelings aside, Ms. Jackson too, and made a commitment to move on," said Patrick Hadley, head of the Office of Urban Opportunity, the state office responsible for managing Front Porch.

At issue was Jackson's role. Bennett and many members of the revitalization council initially thought Jackson was an employee. But Jackson maintained she was not an executive director or a secretary.

Hadley clarified her role Thursday night. She is an independent contractor who serves the council.

Still, Jackson continued Thursday night to serve as a spark for the collective anger and frustration of a group whose recent meetings have degenerated into shouting matches.

At issue this time? Copies.

Jackson, during her report to the board, offered to read a letter she had written raising questions about the group's financial reports.

Several members questioned why they haven't been provided with copies. Jackson has been unable to get a budget for copies.

In fact, she's had problems getting paid. Just two weeks ago, Hadley had to order the council to pay her salary.

Board member Evelyn Fletcher then pointed out that the city's Business Development Center had offered a month ago to allow Jackson to make copies for free. Why wasn't Jackson taking the initiative to use that service? At least half a dozen people spoke about the issue, some in support of Jackson obtaining a budget for copies, others in support of her using the Business Development Center. Before long, everyone was yelling.

Which is when Annette Howard, a business owner on 22nd Street S, stood up from among the audience of about 50 people.

"If you all would wash your laundry some place else beside in front of us, it would be appreciated," Howard said. "Let's don't scare our citizens off. We have a good turnout. Let's not forget the people."

The Front Porch group has been on the mend for several weeks with help from the Office of Urban Opportunity.

At its last meeting, the group brought back several members who had resigned in disgust and agreed to fill vacancies with fresh faces.

Thursday's meeting brought out 17 members of the 24-member council.

The group agreed on just one item. They voted unanimously to seek a $300,000 grant from the state to provide health benefits to minorities in the Front Porch neighborhoods south of Tropicana Field.

Hadley, the state official, sat with the board members, answering questions when he could.

Asked later if he would return for the group's next meeting, Hadley said: "I'm going to be at every meeting they have until we get through this. They seem to operate better when they get their questions answered."

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