ST. PETERSBURG — What started as a request for a letter to city officials from a neighborhood frustrated with escalating crime has morphed into questions about leadership.
Central Oak Park residents asked the Council of Neighborhood Associations to send city officials a letter underscoring that their neighborhood deserves equal service from the city.
Members of CONA voted to not send the letter last week.
But some neighborhood association presidents say the fight over the letter highlights a bigger problem in CONA — a lack of advocacy.
"It was a simple letter — and they had to make a big issue out of it," said Ron Rolland, president of the Central Oak Park Neighborhood Association. "When you have a president of an association get up and say, 'We're having issues,' shouldn't that be enough?"
But CONA President Barbara Heck called the proposed letter "volatile" and noted that the organization voted 13-3 to reject it.
She said CONA leaders brought Central Oak Park's crime complaints to several top police officials, including Chief Chuck Harmon.
"It was on everybody's radar," she said. "How often do you talk on the phone with the chief of police for 20 minutes about one particular neighborhood?"
Rolland said his neighborhood, one of the city's largest, has seen a rash of burglaries and violent crime, causing some residents to pack up and leave. He told a story about a grandmother who said she simply couldn't handle the amount of crime anymore.
"When I hear that, it crushes me," he said.
City Council member Wengay Newton's district includes most of Central Oak Park. Neighborhood boundaries are from Fifth Avenue S to 13th Avenue N and from 34th Street west to 49th Street.
He ticked off several problems he's seen there, including drugs, gangs and random shootings.
"The neighborhood's gotten so bad," he said. "It's a cesspool."
Newton said it wouldn't have been too much to send the letter and alert city officials about the neighborhood's problems: "The CONA bylaws say they're supposed to advocate for you."
But Jeff Frank, head of CONA's public safety committee, said he and other CONA leaders have been working with police about Central Oak Park's crime concerns.
Frank said he's working to get updated crime statistics so people have an accurate picture of what's going on where they live.
He said the issue was over-dramatized by "strong personalities."
But he said it has brought about some good things, such as a more vibrant neighborhood watch program in Central Oak Park.
"Situations like this help bring to light that some neighborhoods are having a hard time," he said.
Even so, Lance Lubin, president of the Eagle Crest Neighborhood Association, criticized CONA's response.
"The city does not always act in the best interests of neighborhoods," he said. "CONA should be just busting down the doors, trying to get to the bottom of this."
Lubin said at least six other association presidents are upset with the organization's leaders. He predicted that Heck might not retain her post at CONA's next election in November.
"There needs to be new people in positions of leadership who are willing to fight for the neighborhoods," he said.
Heck defended her leadership style and said the police got Central Oak Park's message.
"We try to work through the issue and concerns in partnership with the neighborhoods and city entities," she said. "We've found that to be the most effective way to find solutions."
She added that she sympathizes with the problems in Central Oak Park: "If you're in a neighborhood and you experience some type of crime, what is being done is never enough. It doesn't matter what CONA does.
"It's never going to be enough."