Eyes pop, jaws drop over local newsletter
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
© St. Petersburg Times,
ST. PETERSBURG -- Sheri Gaunt, secretary of the nascent Norwood Heights Neighborhood Association, was shocked when one of the organization's officials called to complain angrily about the November newsletter.
"I went to school Saturday and came home and my phone was ringing off the hook. The vice president was on the phone shouting at me. She said she couldn't believe I would do such a thing," Ms. Gaunt recalled.
"I said, 'What offended you?' "
On Page 3 was the recipe for Cracker Barrel's Hash Brown Casserole. On Page 1, a gushing column about the new neighborhood sign. There was news about the red, white and blue fundraising dinner that was to take place at the president's home and various odds and ends that typically make their way into a neighborhood newsletter.
The problems started on Page 4, a page Ms. Gaunt first learned of when a livid Judy Sauseda, Norwood Heights' vice president, phoned her. Page 4 had been added after Ms. Gaunt had painstakingly prepared the newsletter on her home computer and turned it over to the president for printing. It was a speech of sorts.
Laced with profanity and invectives against Muslims, Arabs, Mexicans and Japanese, it appeared under the title "If I were President George W. Bush's speech writer." The phony speech was downloaded from the Internet by neighborhood association president Daryl Luyat, said Linda Mecomber, who is Luyat's neighbor and friend, and treasurer of the organization.
Ms. Gaunt, 34, who works at Allstate and attends Eckerd College, said she was appalled when she saw the newsletter. Certain that the printing company had inadvertently added the offensive page, she called Mrs. Mecomber.
"She starts laughing at me," Ms. Gaunt recalled. "She said people feel that way."
"I thought it was very funny," agreed Mrs. Mecomber during an interview Monday afternoon.
"I felt that what with the tragedy that went on Sept. 11, everybody needed a laugh and it would break the tension, because there was too much tension since that day."
Mrs. Mecomber told Neighborhood Times that Luyat, president of the newly reactivated Norwood Heights association, had shown her the phony speech before asking her to get the newsletter printed.
"I was aware that it was in the newsletter," she said.
Luyat, a tow truck driver who headed the approximately 100-home association that runs from 22nd Avenue N to 30th Avenue N and Interstate 275 to the railroad tracks, could not be reached, despite repeated phone calls and a visit to his home. Since the newsletter's publication, the organization has fallen into turmoil. Luyat has resigned and Mrs. Mecomber is no longer treasurer, according to Mrs. Sauseda, the vice president. In fact, she added, the association's bank account has been closed. Mrs. Mecomber said she has been accused of mismanaging the association's books, which she adamantly denies. Mrs. Mecomber also said she has offered to take a lie detector test to prove her innocence and refuses to give up her position as Norwood Heights' treasurer.
The phony speech that triggered the organization's upheaval apparently was written in response to the Sept. 11 attack. It reads in part:
"To the people responsible for today's tragedy, I say this: Are you f--- kidding me? Are the turbans on your heads wrapped too tight? Have you gone too long without a bath? Do you not know who you are f--- with? Americans are so hungry to kill that we shoot at each other every day. We will relish that opportunity for new targets for our aggression. Have you forgotten history? What happened to the last people that started f--- around with us? Remember the little yellow b---- over in Japan?"
Ms. Gaunt's response was to resign as Norwood Heights' secretary, though she now wants to remain active in the neighborhood and run to replace Luyat.
"I spent three weeks creating a newsletter that would be pleasing to everyone in the neighborhood, keeping its primary focus on letting neighbors know the direction in which our association is headed," she wrote in her resignation letter.
"I was shocked to see the fourth page of the newsletter ... since it was not included by myself as part of the finished copy. I cannot imagine any forum which would invite the inappropriate material which our president chose, on his own, to include. The president asked the opinion of one member, our treasurer Linda Mecomber, and with her okay, included it. ... I will not have my name or my hard work associated with such filth."
Ms. Gaunt and Mrs. Sauseda weren't the only ones unamused.
"Patriotism is no excuse for ignorance," said Skip Johnson, Ms. Gaunt's fiance.
"This is a professional newsletter that goes out to the neighborhood association."
On Tuesday, Susan Ajoc, Neighborhood Partnership director, said that while the city of St. Petersburg supports neighborhood associations with grants and technical assistance, it does not provide money for newsletters.
"We do not fund any what we call First Amendment projects and things like newsletters and Web sites for a number of reasons. Mainly because our associations typically have a number of issues that they address that may not necessarily be in keeping with city policy, or they have opinions that are different from the position the city has taken. As separate entities, they have every right to do that," Ms. Ajoc said.
Al Geisler, 56, an unemployed plumber, found himself the unwitting distributor of the offensive pages.
"The president asked me to pass them out," Geisler said.
Geisler added that he did not learn of the content of the newsletters until after he had already hung them on his neighbors' front doors. Then he tried to retrieve them and make amends.
"I went around and apologized to my Laotian neighbors," he said.
Mrs. Sauseda, 54, the neighborhood's vice president, said the insults hit close to home.
"My husband is Mexican and he took quite a lot of offense from it. I'm part American Indian," the disabled homemaker said.
"To me, that's nothing but slander and disgusting trash," she said.
"It's disgusting," agreed Ms. Gaunt.
This is an excerpt of the made-up speech that appeared on the fourth page of the Norwood Heights Neighborhood Association Newsletter. One of the neighborhood's board members said it was downloaded from the Internet.
If I were President George W. Bush's speech writer ...
To the people responsible for today's tragedy, I say this:
Are you f--- kidding me? Are the turbans on your heads wrapped too tight? Have you gone too long without a bath? Do you not know who you are f--- with? Americans are so hungry to kill that we shoot at each other every day. We will relish that opportunity for new targets for our aggression.
Have you forgotten history? What happened to the last people that started f--- around with us?
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