CLEARWATER — St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's bid to simplify oversight of homeless aid programs provoked a backlash among the nonprofit groups that serve the homeless.
That's because Foster wanted to keep them out of the new organization that would decide which groups will receive funding to fight homelessness.
They derided Foster's idea as a "disappointing" power grab by government officials who are ignoring their years of experience running aid programs.
"You don't have to politicize the process. You don't have to demagogue the service providers," Bruce Fyfe, chairman of the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater, told a task force studying the issue on Monday.
The task force ultimately agreed, backing Foster's plan to create a countywide agency to oversee $4 million in annual federal funding but insisting that service providers be included.
The 18-member task force, an offshoot of the Homeless Leadership Network and the Coalition for the Homeless, decided that the board should include eight elected officials and up to 13 other people, including two or three homeless services providers.
"I know plenty of elected officials that don't know beans about homelessness, and that scares me," said Largo Mayor Pat Gerard, chief operating officer of Family Resources Inc., a nonprofit offering homeless services.
Underlining that point, Boley Centers chief executive Gary MacMath asked the government officials at Monday's meeting a federal funding question that no one could answer.
The task force also rebuffed Foster's suggestion that the new nonprofit be created by August. Instead, the goal will be to have it running next year because members found the creation too complicated.
"We want to make sure we do it right," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who leads the task force.
Foster wasn't at Monday's meeting, but said in a later interview that the changes don't necessarily bother him as long as the new agency has a way to solve conflicts of interest.
"You do want to avail yourself to the expertise, to the service providers. … But you also want to make sure there are checks to the recommendations on who gets how much," said Foster, who has been relying on the advice of the city's consultant on homelessness, Texan Robert Marbut.
Marbut said having service providers on the new board is acceptable because now they will have to declare a conflict and recuse themselves from voting.
"People need to know we're aware of it. We're not working in a cloud," coalition vice chairman Sandra Lyth, director of the InterCultural Advocacy Institute in Clearwater, said of the potential for conflicts of interest.
Foster reiterated Monday that there's "a sense of urgency" to figuring out how to better address homelessness, but he rejected suggestions that he was usurping the providers.
"I think a lot of people might be misinformed as to somehow the mayor of St. Petersburg wants to control this body, and that could not be further from the truth," Foster said.
While most agree something needs to be done to unify services, Foster's push to exclude providers complicated the effort.
Now, service providers serve on the coalition and the leadership network boards, which oversee funding the diffuse realm of local homeless services and setting policy. The meeting-heavy system has become burdensome and inefficient.
"It's not known as a board of action," said St. Petersburg City Council member Leslie Curran, a task force member.
Foster's announcement in June also caused network and coalition members to recoil politically because Welch said they had been discussing the creation of a new countywide agency since March.
Those talks have been delicate because some homeless providers stand to have their influence curtailed if a new agency is smaller, leading them to push for a bigger role.
Marbut hinted that further debate and fine-tuning is still to come.
Like task force members Curran and Jeff Danner of the St. Petersburg City Council, Marbut wants a smaller board of 15 or 16 people ultimately.
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.