ST. PETERSBURG — It's an organization that kick-starts political ambitions and has minted City Council members.
In recent times, though, the Council of Neighborhood Associations has become known for controversy, some of it fueled by race.
Lisa Wheeler-Brown, the group's first African-American leader, has vowed to get the St. Petersburg group back on task.
"I see CONA as an organization that can get back to where it used to be and will!" she emailed members after the most recent dustup. "It is not about personalities, it is about what is best for OUR neighborhoods!"
Wheeler-Brown, 45, appears to have the support of many neighborhood leaders, but still has to persuade some who abandoned the group to return.
The flashpoint of the latest quarrel is recent CONA president Kurt Donley, 50, seething at being shut out from the spot of public safety chairman and the rejection of a neighborhood association he started in Gulfport, where he now lives. As president, Donley was criticized for what was seen as his preoccupation with righting the wrongs posited in Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
"He did get away from the mission of CONA and was not inclusive of all neighborhoods," said Marlene Murray, president of the Meadowlawn Neighborhood Association and a CONA board member. "The neighborhoods just felt that they were left out of things that were important to them."
Some, though, applauded Donley's effort to address what he describes as institutional racism in the criminal justice system. In a letter to CONA, Brother John Muhammad, president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, said he was pleased with the group's efforts "to begin conversations" about issues "that are often ignored by an organization such as this."
Others, including the Grand Central District, where Donley had been president, the Downtown Neighborhood Association and Historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association, left CONA in frustration.
"We simply canceled our annual membership at the end of August. We just lost confidence in the direction it was going," said John Seibert, president of the Historic Kenwood association.
"In essence, we saw no value in belonging to an association that acts more like a political action committee than it does a neighborhood partner," Paul Dickens, a former Kenwood president and current crime watch coordinator, said in an email.
Donley, who gave several "New Jim Crow" presentations during his tenure last year, said his effort raised "awareness of institutional racism and the negative effects in the city."
"It was very well received," he said, conceding that the program "did alienate some people."
A column Donley prepared with the libertarian Cato Institute as a source — "10 things every young black man needs to know: How to handle a police encounter" — drew even more criticism.
"People started getting concerned about CONA's relationship with the police," Wheeler-Brown said. "I'm not saying that race is not an issue in the community, but as president, I have to ask the neighborhoods what they want. That's my chief focus. We're going to unite these neighborhoods."
For some, the damage has been done.
Gary Grooms, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said his neighborhood is unlikely to rejoin CONA.
"If CONA can find their way again and prove why it's valuable as an organization, then we will rethink it," he said. "Last year was the last straw. They just kind of lost their way. And it's just been an unending stream of drama."
Donley, public safety chairman for the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP and chairman-elect of St. Petersburg Together, a group whose vision includes a city of inclusion and civility, described a different scenario in a February email to neighborhood leaders.
"I believe we did really good work last year," he said. "We maintained all our normal activities, increased membership, brought back disillusioned, underserved neighborhoods, built strategic relationships and went a long way to wash off the perception that CONA was racist."
The organization, whose members now come from only about 24 of the city's approximately 88 neighborhoods, made news four years ago when racially insensitive comments became public.
Writing to CONA leaders before their February meeting, Donley cited procedural errors and decried the actions of the executive committee in rejecting his Gulfport Marina District Neighborhood Association. With Wheeler-Brown "as the deciding voice," he said, the committee "decided to retroactively deny" his group membership to make sure he could not be elected public safety chairman and vote.
He accused Wheeler-Brown, once a close friend, of caving into a small contingent of neighborhood leaders.
Robert Thompson, who lives in the Westminster Heights neighborhood, spoke on Donley's behalf at CONA's recent meeting. "I don't have a horse in the race," he said during an interview. "I do care that we do things correctly. I don't think we should be manipulating the rules to try to get rid of him."
As she seeks to rejuvenate the organization, Wheeler-Brown and other board members met with Mayor Rick Kriseman and Mike Dove, administrator of neighborhood affairs, to discuss CONA's goals.
St. Petersburg wants to increase the number of neighborhood associations and participation in them, Dove said Tuesday, adding that the groups offer the city an effective way to communicate with residents.
Richard Meeker of Euclid-St. Paul is optimistic about CONA's future.
"Unfortunately, there is still some history for everybody to get over," he said. "Lisa's continuing to rebuild. You can see neighborhoods coming back."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.