LARGO — Ask any government official the secret to getting things accomplished and they'll likely include community involvement.
On Monday night, more than 2,000 people turned out at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks for a community meeting to discuss how to better their communities, cut down on crime and provide more affordable housing.
Each year Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, invites Pinellas County elected officials and law enforcement to a public meeting where they are asked to commit to a series of initiatives.
Those in attendance cited the group's size as a way to push officials to do more.
"There are a lot of issues that really need attention," said Adrian West, a minister at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and audience member. "If we're unified voters, we can get more done."
This year FAST wants:
• Schools with more than 10 percent of student suspensions to implement a research-based discipline program.
• County officials to budget $5-million toward funding affordable housing.
• Law enforcement to investigate areas where residents have documented crimes through a "Hot Spot" card system.
Since its inception FAST, comprising more than 30 congregations throughout Pinellas, including Catholics, Baptists and at least one temple, has successfully advocated for transportation for the elderly, expansion of prekindergarten programs and dollars for affordable housing. The victories have energized the group that started as a small contingent. Monday marked the fourth annual meeting.
"We're not hoping anymore," said the Rev. Willie McClendon of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. "We're getting things done."
At last year's FAST meeting, city and county leaders vowed to create 3,000 affordable housing units. This year FAST leaders asked them to make that a reality by 2010.
Pinellas County commissioners as well as Largo, Clearwater and St. Petersburg city council members were invited, though they did not all attend. The group invites officials on-stage, where they are required to answer yes or no to the initiative at hand. If officials answer no, they are given a chance to explain their response.
As for the affordable housing issue, all in attendance said they would accept the challenge except Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton.
"I don't feel comfortable starting my political career telling fairy tales," Newton said. "(But) we've been striving."
Some officials have declined the invitation over the years, citing the format. Notably absent from the panel were St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon and Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein. Both said the event's yes-or-no questioning was the reason. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker did not attend.
FAST organizers defended the format and said they were disappointed that the chiefs did not attend. "We don't blindside our officials," said Father John Tapp of Holy Family Catholic Church. "They know ahead of time what questions we will ask them."
Harmon and Klein plan to meet with the group later, according to FAST organizers.
As a way to fight crime, FAST members were instructed to document areas where they saw crime activity on what the group calls "Hot Spot" cards. At Monday's meeting the group presented those cards and asked that a report be given to the group.
Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats accepted 15 cards and agreed to provide them with a report after the leads were investigated. "I'm glad I accepted the invitation," Coats said. "I've learned a lot."
Across the bay in Tampa, a thousand people packed into Lake Magdalene United Methodist Church to ask public officials to address similar pressing social issues. The event, organized by HOPE — Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality — focused on affordable dental care for the poor and securing IDs for homeless people.
"We gather together because our faith and our values and our principles call us — in fact, require us — to do justice in our community," Father Desmond Daly of Christ the King Catholic Church told the Tampa assembly.
Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8828.