LARGO — About 3,000 members of a countywide interfaith group gathered to put Pinellas public officials on the hot seat Monday night.
Leaders from Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, urged Pinellas leaders and elected officials to make helping people in the community a priority over things like sprucing up beaches and expanding bike paths.
"We are here tonight because we are tired of officials balancing their budgets on the backs of the poor," said the Rev. Clark Hazley of Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. "We are here to take a stand for families that are in need in our communities."
The 3,000 group members, who are from nearly 40 churches and temples, came to First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo to urge officials to curb crime, boost investment in affordable housing and support initiatives to increase jobs.
Since its creation in 2004, FAST has routinely invited local leaders to similar forums.
At Monday's gathering, similar to previous summits, officials were asked, one by one, to stand in front of the crowd and answer questions with "yes" or "no" answers. Officials were also given about a minute to explain their position.
In the past, some officials have cited concerns about the meeting's format and pressure to "commit" to the group's positions on the spot.
FAST officials said local leaders are provided with questions ahead of time so no one is blindsided.
On Monday, the group demanded answers to a number of questions, including whether the county planned to reverse plans to contribute $15 million instead of $30 million to an affordable-housing trust fund. County Commissioner John Morroni made a commitment to make that proposal.
Group leaders also asked Morroni and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster if they would offer incentives, like those offered to large businesses, to smaller businesses. Foster, who said he had just received a copy of the questions, said he couldn't make that commitment.
They also asked Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats if he would reinstate an in-jail rehabilitation program for women and expand the same program for men. Coats said he couldn't expand the men's program. He promised to reinstate the women's program, but said he couldn't commit to the 40 spaces that the group requested. Was that a "yes" or a "no"? he was asked.
"A little bit of both," he replied. That answer wasn't acceptable to the group.
Other officials who attended included Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, Clearwater police Chief Anthony Holloway and St. Petersburg assistant police Chief Luke Williams.
At the close of the summit, FAST leaders took a moment to laud those who showed up and several minutes to criticize those who did not, including most of the County Commission.
Largo Mayor Pat Gerard garnered a positive response from the crowd because she was able to commit to group requests. She attended other FAST meetings in the past and said the format can be "irksome" because the group doesn't accept explanations and sees them as an excuse.
"I think it's a simplistic way of looking at things, but I think the intent is certainly a good one," Gerard said.
Despite the confrontational format, Gerard said she wouldn't think of not coming.
"If you're not there, God help you," she said.