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Seminole Heights neighborhood group boots two past presidents

TAMPA — For the first time in its history, the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association has kicked out three of its members — and not just any three.

Two are the most immediate past presidents, Randy Baron and Susan Long. The third is Christie Hess, named the Tampa Police Department's 2008 Citizen of the Year.

The neighborhood bylaws say an executive board can "expel members whose actions or conduct embarrass or jeopardize the best interest" of the association.

Their excommunication-worthy offense?

They started a charitable foundation.

• • •

Some neighborhood associations are small, loose. They may have the same president for years. Might go months without a single quibble.

Then there is Old Seminole Heights. Members: 600. Annual budget: $50,000. It has an executive board of nine officers and more than a dozen subcommittees. Almost every move it makes requires a vote.

Decisions take time and often prompt fierce debate, at meetings, on the Internet and in the few square miles the neighbors all share.

Sometimes, it gets personal.

The issue in question: the newly formed Seminole Heights Foundation, a charitable organization formed so that people could make tax-exempt donations for neighborhood improvements like park benches, new trees and historic street lamps.

Baron, Long and Hess started it outside the association, on their own. Instead of exclusively serving one neighborhood's boundaries, they'd cover a bigger area of Seminole Heights, which includes two other associations.

They applied for nonprofit status and reserved two .org Web domains: SeminoleHeightsFoundation and OldSeminoleHeightsFoundation.

The board didn't know any of this until a news release had gone out. Members were livid.

For more than a decade, the association had discussed creating a foundation. In the fall, it created a committee to research it, hiring a lawyer, consulting with professional fundraisers, writing bylaws. Baron was on that committee.

Had he stolen their plans?

The association hired a lawyer, who sent a letter to the three foundation members accusing them of "usurping" the ideas of the association's board.

At a general membership meeting mentioned in an April Times story, the issue was aired. Foundation members kept quiet as neighbors accused them of illegal activity and the use of "insider information." Others called for peace.

That night, the association's president, Jeff Harmon, called for everyone to move forward and leave this behind.

Then, at a board meeting in May, a vote was taken by its nine members — an unexpected one.

Unanimously, and for the first time ever, the Foundation Three were expelled.

• • •

Baron, Long and Hess got calls from people at the meeting that night. They hear one made a motion, the other seconded, and they were out.

A week later, they still hadn't officially been notified by the board.

"There was no notice. There was no due process. There's been no explanation for what it means," Baron said.

He says he attended his first association meeting a week after he moved to the neighborhood and has missed only one since. Baron says he doesn't know what to call himself anymore. If he's been voted out of the neighborhood, is he still a resident?

In the three years he served as president, and the year that Long followed, the two built up the neighborhood's reputation in the city. Seminole Heights was chosen as a testing ground for form-based zoning. The neighborhood celebrated code enforcement victories. Starbucks moved in.

Since their presidencies, both Baron and Long have been appointed to citizen boards by the City Council and the mayor.

Harmon, the association president, said the board talked the decision through. He said it was painful. He said the three have remained silent and refused to negotiate with the association about the foundation.

"It's not like this is over dislike," Harmon said. "This is over action. I mean, this was done to us. It was done to the board. It was done to the committee."

He said its bylaws didn't require them to bring the issue to a general membership vote. The three who were expelled will get an official letter and their $10 dues, he said.

City neighborhood guidelines say an association's membership should be open to all residents, but neighborhood liaison Shannon Edge says they exist to prevent discrimination. After checking with the city attorney about the actions of Old Seminole Heights, she said the association has a right to expel members.

"What we're trying to do is put a stop to this infighting," Harmon said.

Meanwhile, another group of neighbors, feuding over the proposal of a new historic district, has threatened to secede from the association.

It, too, has hired a lawyer.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Seminole Heights neighborhood group boots two past presidents 05/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 10:54pm]
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