Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

FAST assembly confronts local officials on issues

ST. PETERSBURG — In years past, the Nehemiah Action Assembly needed a large place to gather.

The Assembly used to convene at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks Beach, where members of FAST — Faith and Action for Strength Together — an alliance of religious groups advocating social change, would confront local elected officials with their message.

This year, the crowd was so big, they met at Tropicana Field.

Organizers said about 3,000 FAST supporters gathered Tuesday night in the outfield where the Tampa Bay Rays play to demand action from local leaders on jobs, public education, health care and affordable housing.

"This is a group that really holds elected officials accountable," St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said. "They get results. Elected officials pay attention."

The group's demands were specific. The discussion was respectful. Still, FAST supporters could not take no for an answer.

In a preamble to the main program, the Rev. John Hiers of Episcopal Church of the Ascension cautioned about the tension such issues may arouse. He instructed participants to applaud only when officials answered "yes" when asked if they would support the group's proposals. Answers of "no" were to be met with silence, Hiers said, not boos.

On affordable housing, they asked county commissioners if they would support allocating $5 million per year over the next three years from the Penny for Pinellas tax to fund affordable housing. John Morroni, Charlie Justice and Janet Long all said "yes." They joined fellow commissioner Ken Welch, who supported the idea, but was not in attendance.

The applause echoed through the baseball stands.

On jobs, Foster and St. Petersburg City Council chairman Karl Nurse were asked if they would push to enact an ordinance requiring contractors working on taxpayer-funded construction projects to hire a certain percentage of qualified local workers.

Both answered "yes." Both were applauded.

More applause followed when local health officials expressed support for a plan to expand the county's dental services.

Then there was education.

Barbara Hires, area four superintendent of Pinellas County schools, stood in place of superintendent Michael Grego, whom supporters explained, had a prior commitment.

Hiers was asked if she could speak for Grego in supporting the implementation of a teaching method known as direct instruction to improve the reading scores of the county's elementary school children.

"Not at this time," Hires said.

Ignoring the earlier warning, some people booed.

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