SUN CITY CENTER — For three decades, volunteers have been on the lookout for suspicious activity inside the expansive Sun City Center retirement community.
The security patrol touts a fleet of five radio-equipped patrol cars, more than a thousand volunteers and $1.2 million in assets.
The patrol was one of the first things people moving into the southern Hillsborough County community wanted to join.
But when the patrol's board of directors ousted the chief last fall, things turned dicey.
Suddenly, the security patrol itself became a victim of vandalism, asserts a lawsuit filed this month: a gas tank was filled with sand, and flat tires on patrol vehicles went from just a few to about a dozen in January alone. An anonymous letter calling him a "snake" and a "coward" was delivered to the new chief.
"I hope people wake up and realize this is just a dispute about one individual who didn't want to follow the rules," said the current chief of patrol and recipient of that letter, Robert Powers.
No police reports were filed about those incidents, and the board has not specifically named people it believes were responsible. A defendant of the lawsuit says no opponents of the ouster were involved in any such thing.
But the episodes are mentioned in a civil suit the directors filed last week in Hillsborough County against six former members it says are attempting to "hijack control" of the donation-supported organization.
Such upheaval is rare for the retirement community of more than 17,000. On average, the volunteer patrol reports one incident a month to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Powers said. It has the lowest crime rate in the county.
The complications started in the late summer of 2012, according to the lawsuit. The patrol's board alleged that then-Chief of Patrol Mike Albanese, 73, was violating policies by letting people use security vehicles for personal use and taking advantage of the organization's tax exempt status to buy a personal printer without paying sales tax.
The board fired Albanese from the volunteer position.
On Monday, Albanese deferred comment to lawsuit defendant Kai Rambow, then did not return calls later.
Rambow, who has lived in Sun City Center for six years and served on the patrol for three, said the Sheriff's Office investigated claims against Albanese and found no criminal wrongdoing.
Following the firing, Rambow and friends of the ousted chief held a special meeting to vote out the current board of directors. New members were chosen.
Pamphlets proclaiming "SECURITY PATROL BOARD VOTED OUT!" were placed on cars, golf carts and buses.
The board says in its lawsuit that the meeting was unauthorized and violated bylaws. The suit aims to put an end to this splinter group and establish, once and for all, who controls the security patrol.
Rambow said the protesters never claimed to be a new board.
The headline of the pamphlet, he said, was designed only to grab attention. He points to the bottom of the flier, which asks the board to accept the outcome but doesn't assert the legality of that meeting's results.
"When we asked them to change things, they ignored us, so we mounted the protest," Rambow said. "Virtually every action they've taken has been undemocratic. We have never said that we were an official meeting. We have never said that we were the new board."
Rambow said he and the other lawsuit defendants were removed from the patrol in January and were not allowed to have their own legal representation present at those hearings.
The defendants will likely file a countersuit, he said.
As for the accusations of threats, intimidations and flat tires, Rambow denies the opposition was involved.
"We made our case known, yes," Rambow said. "But have we ever done anything outside of that? Absolutely not."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.