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Oldsmar candidate faces thorny issue over garden club leadership

OLDSMAR — Two years ago, Loretta Wyandt sought a restraining order against a member of the Top of the Bay Garden Club, of which she was president.

Pinellas Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold heard witness testimony, threw out the petition, then ripped Wyandt's leadership skills.

"If you are going to be a leader of the group, you have to know effective leadership," he said. "From what I've seen today … that is lacking and perhaps you should consider resigning."

The garden club had 12 or 13 members at the time.

Now Wyandt wants to represent Oldsmar, a city of 14,000. And so does one of the women who testified against her.

Wyandt and Janice Miller are certified to run for two City Council offices: seats 2 and 4.

Miller and Oldsmar Christian School teacher Tom Eckert will vie for Seat 2.

Wyandt, who was last on the council in 1990, is in a three-way race for Seat 4 with former Tampa Tribune sales and marketing executive Robert Brown and Linda Norris, owner of Providence Painting in Tampa.

Thursday, Wyandt said the judge's assessment of her leadership abilities was inaccurate.

"Just because a judge says it doesn't make it so," she said. "He was just giving his opinion and everybody has an opinion.

"If it had anything to do with my leadership, I wouldn't have been president for two years after that. I'm still a member on the executive board and she's no longer a member."

• • •

In court documents, Wyandt said Virginia Cash-Renbjor verbally abused her during an October 2006 meeting.

A dispute over a Christmas party and club procedures escalated and Cash-Renbjor yelled, "Well, g-- d---, Loretta, answer the question."

Cash-Renbjor said that was as far as things got.

After another meeting four months later, Wyandt alleged the same woman physically assaulted her — an accusation Cash-Renbjor and several others denied.

She didn't call police and waited two days after the March 19, 2007, meeting to request a protective order against Cash-Renbjor. Without naming them, Wyandt said that several club members urged her to seek one.

"She rushed towards me and grabbed my hands trying to wrest the gavel out of my hands and spewed obscene language at me," she wrote in the March 21 petition. "If she had grabbed the gavel out of my hands, she might have attacked me."

St. Arnold heard Wyandt's request eight days later at the Pinellas County Courthouse. All told, seven witnesses filed into Room 465. Six testified — four for Wyandt, two for Cash-Renbjor. The judge didn't hear from the seventh. She didn't have anything new to add.

Among those on Cash-Renbjor's side was then-council member Miller, who could end up sitting on the same council as Wyandt if the two women prevail March 9.

She told the judge that the club was nominating officers for the next year and Wyandt refused to follow procedure and take nominations from the floor.

"She called me a troublemaker," Miller told St. Arnold.

At the end of the testimony, all anyone could agree on was that there was a gavel, a tug and some expletive-filled name calling.

The judge scolded Wyandt. "This is the court where we see murderers and drug dealers, where we decide who gets the kids, where we decide if professionals have malpracticed or been professionally incompetent," St. Arnold said. "We make life-and-death decisions at the Circuit Court level. What I'm seeing here is not adult behavior. This is more like playground antics."

Then he threw out the petition. "You're here on a petition for protection against repeat violence," he said. "That tells me first off I have to find violence, battery, assault, kidnapping. And I have to find that it occurred more than once. The proof I've heard in this case falls far short of that and quite frankly, I'm offended that it went to this level."

A bailiff escorted Wyandt and the others out of the room. Several times, Wyandt cried out to the judge that she feared for her life.

"She had some medical problems; I don't know if that caused her aggressive behavior or not," Wyandt said of Cash-Renbjor on Thursday. "I'm 78. At my age, you don't want to take a chance on someone beating up on you."

• • •

Cash-Renbjor said she did nothing to Wyandt.

"That's just a very sad individual that would imply something like that," she said Thursday. "I don't think a doctor would allow their patient to be on medication that would cause them to have outbursts and be cruel to people.

"Oh gosh, I could say so many things, but I believe in karma and Loretta's karma is stacking up against her."

Wyandt, who was on the council from 1979 to 1981 and from 1988 to 1990, is no stranger to controversy.

She has tried to return the council at least five times — 1987, 1990, 1991, 2000 and 2007 — and lost.

On the eve of the 1990 election, the St. Petersburg Times discovered Wyandt hadn't graduated from St. Petersburg Junior College as a campaign brochure stated. Records indicated Wyandt took a single class there in 1979 but did not enroll for any others.

A decade later, she asked for a recount after losing the race for Seat 3 by 211 votes. The Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office denied the request.

"I think Loretta should step aside and let people with fresh ideas have their chance," Cash-Renbjor said. "She's had her opportunity."

Recently, Wyandt handed her a card at a council meeting.

" 'I know you're not going to vote for me,' " she said Wyandt told her. " 'I just wanted to let you know that I was running.'

"She made sure to do this in public. She wanted to make sure people saw her conversing with me and kind of dust the dirt under the rug."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Oldsmar candidate faces thorny issue over garden club leadership 12/10/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 10, 2009 9:12pm]
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