NEW TAMPA — They sipped red wine, nibbled on pasta al forno and stuffed mushrooms and laughed around the granite-topped island in the host's kitchen.
The mood was upbeat and festive and the 30 or so people — all neighbors — were chatty. The only immediate indication that this was no ordinary dinner party were the name tags on their shirts.
This Friday evening gathering of residents of the upscale community of Cory Lake Isles in northeastern Hillsborough was inspired by an often uninspiring and relatively thankless job: supervisor of a taxing district.
It's notoriously difficult to find homeowners to run for community taxing district boards, and even harder to draw opposition. But that's not the case in Cory Lake Isles this year, where competition is plenty and campaigning is fierce.
Hence, the dinner party.
This was the eighth such appearance at a home by the nonpartisan ticket of Kerri Ringhof, Dan Morford and David Burman — three residents hoping to shake up the board amid contentious times.
The past several months have turned so ugly, the board hired off-duty sheriff's deputies to watch over the meetings; challengers printed up campaign T-shirts; and one person filed a complaint about election law violations. The candidates also have sent out mailers, participated in meet-and-greets and stumped door to door. Oh, and there are also two lawsuits floating around out there.
"It has gotten so nasty, it rivals the presidential race," said Cathy Kelly, who has lived in Cory Lake Isles for five years and hosted the latest meet-and-greet. "People have said things that are out of line on both sides."
Along the gated, brick-lined streets, the community is in transition as the developer prepares to step down and hand over control of the board to the residents. Two of developer Gene Thomason's appointed board members, Suzanne Manzi and Roger Brown, are up for re-election, and Thomason's post is up for grabs. Newcomer David Pardue, who has ties to Thomason, is trying to fill that seat.
The mudslinging started well before residents announced their candidacy, said Manzi, who is facing Morford, one of several residents who filed a lawsuit last year to obtain access to financial records. An offshoot of that lawsuit was a second one accusing Thomason and others, including Manzi, of misusing funds.
"It got nasty when they sued me," Manzi said. "But I just concentrate on what I'm doing and on being positive on Cory Lake."
There are about 1,000 homes in Cory Lake; Manzi estimates she has spoken to about 600 residents about representing "what is traditionally Cory Lake."
"Cory Lake was founded on security, seclusion, serenity and nice landscaping," Manzi said. "The other side does not represent the same things."
The other side — Morford, Ringhof and Burman — share a campaign Web site that promotes their platform of change and transparency.
"I've always felt I wasn't welcome at my own neighborhood meeting," Ringhof said to residents who gathered Friday night. "We're trying to give the voice back to the community, the people who are paying the bills."
The current board recently approved a $584 hike in community development district fees for next year, meaning each homeowner will now pay $3,771 a year.
The fees prompted the original lawsuit against developer Thomason by some residents who want to see documentation detailing how their money has been spent for the past several years. Morford, a party in that lawsuit, was joined by Ringhof as a plaintiff in the second one, which alleges misuse.
And recently, Morford, Ringhof and Burman found themselves on the other side of a probe: They are being investigated by the Florida Elections Commission for failing to properly report campaign expenditures and not following campaign literature laws — an accusation they called baseless.
The complainant, David Shepp, a Lakeland political consultant and lobbyist, said he filed the complaints on behalf of a resident but would not say who. The complaint documentation that Shepp provided to the Elections Commission contains a page from a private, resident-run Web site with Manzi's name listed as the person whose account was logged in at the time.
Manzi denied any connection to the complaint, saying "virtually everyone" in the community has her login and password information.
"I've given it to so many people, I can't even remember," she said. "I gave it to anyone who's ever wanted to see the nastiness on that Web site."
This community has been so fractured by the race, and are so far apart, "you can't even find the intersection," Morford said to residents who gathered Friday night. "We've got to come together to make Cory Lake the community it can be."
Kelly, the homeowner who invited the three candidates to come out and speak to her neighbors, said the mudslinging has revealed something positive: "The outrage shows that people truly care and are very concerned."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 269-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.