ST. PETERSBURG — Some 900 people from across Pinellas County gathered Monday and got ready to hold public officials' feet to the fire over jobs, drugs and education.
The members of FAST, drawn from dozens of religious congregations, prepared a list of demands they will present to public officials at a meeting April 11.
Among them: expand access to drug courts; reinstitute a program for Pinellas County Jail inmates called Smart Choices; use money from the Penny for Pinellas tax to fight home foreclosures; and improve student reading skills.
The crowd was urged to cheer "fervently" at next month's meeting every time a county commissioner or other public official agrees to the group's platform. But they should sit in "utter silence" if anyone disagrees, said the Rev. Robert Schneider, of Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor.
If that sounds like an aggressive way to put elected officials on the spot, it suits Roman Catholic Bishop Robert N. Lynch.
"People of faith show their faith through action," he said.
"If this occasions controversy, so be it," Lynch added. "We are simply following in the footsteps of our Lord."
A state report last year said drug courts in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were turning people away because the rules of the program were too restrictive. FAST, which stands for Faith & Action for Strength Together, is urging legislators to make slight adjustments to the rules so more people can get treatment through drug courts.
Treatment is less expensive than prison and gives people a chance to rebuild their lives, said the Rev. Clarence Williams of Greater Mount Zion AME Church. "I think there are a lot of people out there that just need a little help," he said.
Budget cuts led the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to ax its Smart Choices program that taught inmates life skills and urged them to give up drugs and crime. Now, FAST is urging Sheriff Jim Coats to bring it back.
FAST members today plan to urge county commissioners to use $15 million in Penny for Pinellas tax money for affordable-housing programs, especially one to prevent foreclosures.
They also are urging St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster to give more city contracts to local businesses, and are pushing the Pinellas school system to improve reading at local schools.