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    Oldsmar debates ethics, equines

    One member of the City Council says three others shouldn't have voted on an agreement with the Oldsmar Cultural Arts Foundation.

    By ED QUIOCO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 21, 2000


    OLDSMAR -- Tuesday night's City Council meeting started with protesters on horseback and ended with one council member telling his colleagues that he planned to complain to the Florida Ethics Commission about a decision they had just made.

    The protesters showed up to complain about the prospect of losing access to riding trails in the Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve, but the fireworks really got going when the council discussed a partnership to pay a non-profit foundation to take over the city's community arts program.

    "I have a bad, bad feeling about this contract, a very bad feeling," said council member Ed Richards, a retired Army sergeant. "This bad feeling carried me through the jungles of Vietnam and kept me safe. It's the same feeling I have in here."

    In return for providing the service, the city would pay the Oldsmar Cultural Arts Foundation $6,000 a month and let the non-profit organization use the Oldsmar Arts Centre, located at the Civic Club building on St. Petersburg Drive.

    By a 4-1 vote, with Richards in dissent, council members approved a sublease agreement that will let the arts foundation use the Oldsmar Art Centre. In a second vote, after making changes that Richards suggested, council members unanimously approved a service agreement that details the city's partnership with the foundation.

    At the end of the meeting, Richards told fellow council members that he would go to the ethics commission because he felt three council members have ties to the foundation or its director and should not have voted on the sublease.

    "That's fine, Ed," Mayor Jeff Sandler said. "You go right ahead and do that. Personal attacks, Ed, are the last vestige of hope for individuals who realize they can't survive and win on their own merits."

    Richards' wife, Lilli, also spoke against the deal with the foundation, arguing that giving the group $72,000 a year was too much.

    Richards and his wife said three council members had close ties to the foundation or its president, architect David Wallace. Sandler's wife, Deborah, is a member of the foundation's board of directors and the mayor is one of Wallace's friends, as are council members David Tilki and Ed Manny. Both Sandler and Manny also are members of the foundation.

    Sandler, Tilki and Manny also have stayed for free at Wallace's resort, the Sands of Islamorada in the Florida Keys, and did not file a required gift disclosure until "the press wrote about it," Richards said.

    "Mr. Richards, I would just ask you to be very careful in making any personal attacks on anyone of us here," Tilki said at the end of the meeting.

    At one point, after Mrs. Richards interrupted City Manager Bruce Haddock as he tried to answer one of her questions, Sandler boomed, "Excuse me, if you are going ask him a question, let him answer it."

    "Don't holler at the woman," Richards warned.

    "Ed, she is up here as a citizen," Sandler said. "If she is going to ask the man a question, then let him answer it. It's a simple concept. We are going to have a dialogue, and it's going to be a civil dialogue."

    Haddock told Richards' wife that "the $72,000 is approximately what's in the current year budget if we were providing the services ourselves."

    The Oldsmar Civic Club, which owns the building that houses the Arts Centre and leases it to the city, still must approve the sublease before it becomes final, said City Attorney Tom Trask.

    According to the service agreement approved by the council, the foundation, which has about 60 members, will provide the city with art exhibits and receptions, symphonies, coffeehouses, concerts, art classes and dance instruction. The city and the civic club would still be able to use the building for community meetings and happenings.

    Council members also approved, based on Richards' urging, amending the service agreement to make the foundation abide by state public records laws, subject all employees hired by the foundation to work with children to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement background check and present quarterly reports to the city.

    The foundation, which was formed about two years ago, was the brainchild of city officials who felt that this was the best way to keep the city's arts movement growing. One of the foundation's main goals was to raise money for the arts. About a year ago, the city gave the foundation $5,150 to pay for corporate filing fees and office supplies.

    Before the heated discussion on the foundation, the council found itself in the middle of a lobbying effort from supporters of the Hire A Pony Riding Academy, which has about 40 horses and offers horse rides on woody trails at the top of Old Tampa Bay.

    The woods where the horses trot for the trail rides have been purchased by the city, which plans to use the 77-acre tract as part of the Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve. The current plans for the preserve prohibit horses on the trails.

    Hire A Pony's owner, Armando Gort, fears that the preserve will be the death of his business.

    "My daughter and I both ride regularly and I'm here to stand up for Armando and the farm and make sure the trails are open for the kids of Oldsmar," Michelle Scharf, an Oldsmar resident, said at the meeting.

    As supporters, some carrying signs that read "I love my horse," packed council chambers, eight horses from the academy slowly trotted around a grassy median in front of City Hall in the cold. About a half dozen young riders chanted "Save our horses, save our trails."

    Gort said after the meeting that he has a petition with about 500 signatures supporting the academy.

    Sandler directed Haddock and other city department heads to meet with Gort to discuss a compromise, a decision that was met with loud applause from the crowd. But Sandler warned that the compromise probably would mean that only part of the trails could be used for horse rides and the rest would be used for hiking.

    "We'll try to see if we can work something out," Sandler said. "It is always my belief that where you can provide more recreation rather than less, that's a good thing to do if it can be done within the confines and restrictions you have to work with."

    - Staff writer Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or quioco@sptimes.com.

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