CLEARWATER — The first casualty of the Sand Key Civic Association's civil war fell during a secret meeting, hurriedly assembled Monday morning at a tony condominium tower.
The association's nine-member board, ruled by an alliance of five, had called a rare executive session, sealing doors against the media. Members emerged at noon having expelled one of their own: Dorie Platz, a vocal critic of the group that detractors call the Gang of Five.
The board's leaders said the cause for Platz's removal was confidential. But detractors say Platz's resistance to the board's majority had hastened her demise. One of the charges against Platz, board member Peggy Dagostino recalled: "She doesn't act like a lady."
The civic club of Sand Key, one of Clearwater's wealthiest neighborhoods, has descended into battle, with neighbors on this island enclave severing friendships and calling police.
Members past and present accuse the alliance of staging a coup through shifty politicking and secretive power plays, aimed at pushing through reforms of the Civic Association's constitution.
Opponents say the alliance's aim is to transform this neighborhood group into an arm of legal force, driven by personal interests and empowered by a $200,000 "war chest."
However, the group's embattled leadership calls these claims misinformation. Board member Cynthia Remley said changes to the group's founding bylaws were only aimed at better defending the island and protecting its way of life, much as the group's "courageous activist founders intended it to be when they created it 21 years ago."
Dubbed a "condo canyon" for the coastal towers that line its two-lane road, the mile-long community of Sand Key has long been seen by local politicos as more insular and traditional than its tourist-targeting northern neighbor, Clearwater Beach.
With 30 condo complexes and more than 3,000 members, the Civic Association has helped protect that reputation through legal might: funding opposition against redevelopment, taking up legal arms against a zip-line course and even considering seceding from the city, an "Islands Independence Initiative" that divided its membership and ultimately failed.
That rift — between members seeking a social club and the so-called "condo commanders" — lies at the center of the current conflict, which began in January when a newly elected board created a committee for bylaw review.
That committee returned with sudden changes that former board member Don Van Weezel called a "radical departure" from the bylaws, including the creation of a reserve account that would be declared fully funded once it reached $200,000.
Funded by a third of the group's $70,000 treasury and half of future dues, the account could help pay for experts, accountants and legal advice, said Remley, a business attorney. In three years, the group and its members had spent $170,000 on lawyers, planners and appraisers alone.
But the changes, opponents said, were covertly designed and rushed to approval last month, ignoring members' dissent. Some, like former president Gene Gillespie, suspected the changes had "sinister" motives: Remley, who lives near a site of potential development, could draw from the "super litigation fund" as a way to protect her water view.
Cue angry emails, retiree saber-rattling and mid-meeting cries of "You're out of order!" Saying they had no way to repeal the changes, board members opposed to the Gang of Five declared themselves disenfranchised in the face of unstoppable 5-4 votes. The alliance "got carried away with the power," said board member Dagostino.
Some members resorted to desperate measures to express their discontent. At a meeting last month at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center, Platz staged a sit-in, blocking the closet holding the bylaw committee's table. Chairman Dick Jackson called police to break up the disturbance; no one was arrested. ("I'm a policeman from New York City," Platz recalled the officer saying. "I don't know how to handle this.")
At a tense three-hour meeting Wednesday, the chairman likened rumors fueling the escalating conflict to "a game of Telephone: you don't know what you're going to hear next." Rumors of the account slammed as a "slush fund" had been especially overblown, Jackson added: "The mountain gave birth to a mouse."
The war appears far from armistice. Some members hope to vote in new board candidates at their next election in December — or, failing that, lead a schism from the group that could sever ties for good.
Platz, whose empty seat on the board has yet to be filled, said the civil war has raged so fiercely due to Sand Key residents' passion for the island, albeit sometimes misdirected. Though she said it hurt to even consider, she expects the rift could lead to the group's unpleasant end.
"Will it stay like that? Heck no. It'll be a phoenix," Platz said. "It's going to burn to the ground. But when the whole of Sand Key unites, that is when we will rise from the ashes."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected] Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.