LARGO — Thousands of local parishioners packed a Largo church Monday night to push government leaders to pursue ideas and programs they believe will help the community.
For two hours, leaders from Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, grilled officials and politicians at the summit at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks.
The group of about 3,000 from nearly 40 churches urged officials to improve education, create jobs, reduce crime, help people overcome addiction and assist families on the verge of foreclosure.
The gathering, called a Nehemiah Action Assembly, was much like previous summits, where officials were asked to stand in front of the crowd and answer questions with simple yes or no answers. Since its creation in 2004, FAST has routinely invited local leaders to similar forums. The group's strict tactics have drawn criticism, but FAST leaders defend their methods.
"Tension is a natural part of change," said the Rev. John Tapp of Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. "You cannot move mountains without tension."
The way the group holds officials accountable is not painless, said the Rev. Clarence Williams of Greater Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church.
"When you look at the issues in our community, I don't think there's a painless solution," Williams said.
But except for a few awkward moments, Monday's assembly went smoothly. Most leaders who attended were on board with the group's recommendations.
One of the group's key issues this year is education, according to Joe Magri of St. Cecelia Catholic Church in Clearwater. The group called for the school district to develop a plan to get 80 percent of third-graders reading at or above grade level at 20 troubled schools. Pinellas County schools deputy superintendent Jim Madden agreed to do so on behalf of Superintendent Julie Janssen.
FAST also asked county commissioners if they'd explore using Penny for Pinellas revenue for a foreclosure-prevention program. Two commissioners who attended, Karen Seel and Neil Brickfield, said yes — though Brickfield pointed out that one of the county's attorneys said the use of Penny money is strictly limited by state law and the provision does not allow for such an allocation.
After group representatives said an attorney they contacted advised them differently, Brickfield said, "I'm happy to meet with any attorney but if we have two different opinions I'm going with the county attorney."
Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats was initially hesitant about taking the reins to form a task force to find funding to restart a life skills and rehabilitation program in the jail.
"You help me form a task force and I'll work with that task force," Coats said.
But after group leaders said the ball was in his court, he agreed to initiate the process.
Jobs are also high on the group's priority list.
Three St. Petersburg City Council members — Steve Kornell, Wengay Newton, Karl Nurse — showed up to show their support for the creation of an ordinance to ensure that at least half of the jobs produced through government contracts go to county residents.
The group also voiced their concern about the need for practical and affordable training for job seekers. During the assembly, Stan Vittetoe, vice president for work force and continuing education at St. Petersburg College, announced new certificate programs at SPC.
For FAST leaders, there are few good excuses for missing the assembly. Among them: illnesses or family emergencies. They made sure to express their disappointment with local leaders who informed the group they had prior commitments.