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New rules don't cool Front Porch rift

Despite the state director's intervention, squabbling persists in the local urban renewal effort.

By LEONORA LaPETER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The new state director for Front Porch Florida came to town Thursday.

Alison Hewitt was all business as she tried to maintain order during the regular meeting of the Governor's Revitalization Council of South St. Petersburg, the group responsible for implementing Gov. Jeb Bush's urban renewal program here.

It was no easy task.

There were new rules to prevent the screaming matches that have characterized the group in the past. Members had to raise their hands to talk. Interruptions were not allowed.

But the 14 members who attended fought heartily over numerous topics and were short on progress, even as they tried to follow new rules and remain civil.

Tension simmered once again between the group's community liaison, Faye Jackson, and the council chairman, Rodney Bennett. They were supposed to have patched it up during a meeting a few weeks ago.

But the pair have exchanged a stack of letters in recent weeks that indicate they are not getting along.

They seemed to have a disagreement over who would prepare the agenda for Thursday's meeting; then Jackson accused Bennett of violating the state Sunshine Laws by failing to give the proper 24-hour notice of a special meeting.

In one report, Jackson said Bennett angrily asked her to leave the Front Porch office on 16th Street S Oct. 9 or he would have her removed. Bennett acknowledged she was asked to leave but said it was because she was disrupting a meeting.

Some council members wanted to know why Jackson has never been paid for her expenses or been provided the cell phone she was supposed to have. Bennett said the group needed receipts, at which point Jackson waved a thick file-folder in the air and said she had submitted the receipts.

Hewitt spent more time standing than sitting as she tried to keep the meeting from breaking down into personal attacks.

She was quick to tell the Revitalization Council members that her Office of Urban Opportunity would provide structure but it was up to the Council to take action, to shed the personal bashing, to get along for the community.

At one point, Deveron Gibbons, legislative director for the Department of Community Affairs, stood up and told the group he was "appalled" at its inability to get along. Gibbons worked for the city of St. Petersburg before he took the state job more than a month ago.

"You don't have to keep piercing each others sides," Gibbons said. "My 5-year-old sister, she gets along better than this. Let's get together and move this thing forward. Let's stay on the agenda and stop the personal attacks."

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