On the day they filed to run for board seats in the Cory Lake Isles Community Development District, three candidates issued a joint press release, complete with an image of the U.S. Capitol and an acronym, SMART.
Soon, three opponents retaliated in kind.
Now, the dueling trios are planning neighborhood gatherings, waves of fliers and the kind of competition common to City Council races.
All to govern the taxing district in their neighborhood, a job that in other places can sit vacant for lack of volunteers.
When filing closed on June 20, for example, CDDs in Tampa Palms and Arbor Greene had automatically filled three seats apiece with candidates who filed unopposed. In Lutz's Cheval West, both incumbents were instantly re-elected.
Meanwhile, there is a mix of interest in New Tampa's Heritage Isles and Lutz's Heritage Harbor, two neighborhoods with similar problems and, well, heritages.
In Heritage Harbor, a spate of CDD resignations triggered a newsletter appeal last spring for fresh faces to get involved. Now, three seats are contested.
The president of the Heritage Isles CDD, Steve Stark, was re-elected for lack of an opponent, but the other two incumbents have challengers.
As in Cory Lake, its neighbor to the south, the Heritage Isles election is shaping up as challengers allied against incumbents.
But the Heritage Isles rivalries are genteel.
Incumbent William Martello says of his opponent: "If she beats me in the election, I would not be displeased."
The Cory Lakes races are intense.
Says David Burman, a challenger, "While concerned homeowners have given extensive feedback about management of the Cory Lake community, the sitting board headed by the developer remains unwilling to take our concerns into account."
Says Suzanne Manzi, an incumbent, "I do not believe that my opponents have the least understanding of how complicated government is."
Cory Lake Isles
The controversial developer of Cory Lake Isles is officially a package of companies, but really an individual, Gene Thomason, who named the place for his son, Cory. For 30 years, Gene Thomason's authority in Cory Lake Isles has been pervasive.
Until now. The three board seats on November's ballots are the first to be controlled by Cory Lake's voters instead of Thomason.
Pressure has been building for change. Last year, eight residents successfully sued Thomason for copies of the CDD's records, which are public under Florida law. Based on those records, a larger group accused Thomason in a new suit last month of spending thousands of homeowner dollars on private purchases.
Now battle lines in the CDD race are following Thomason's shadow. Incumbents Manzi and Roger Brown were appointed to the board with Thomason's approval. David Pardue, their running mate, is a homebuilder who last year became a 50 percent partner with Cory Thomason in an investment company.
The challengers include two of the plaintiffs in the latest suit against Thomason, Kerri Ringhof and Dan Morford, along with Burman. They are emphasizing openness and outreach from the board to homeowners.
"There shouldn't be anyone who has questions go unanswered," Ringhof said. "There shouldn't be anyone who doesn't know where their money is going."
The incumbents emphasize their experience and projects they have begun. Manzi, who worked in municipal government in New Jersey, warns that inexperienced boards can lead their CDDs into red ink.
"There are communities all over Florida that are in danger of going bankrupt," she said.
That irks challenger Morford, who boasts more than 15 years' service on homeowner boards in Virginia and Georgia.
"I promise you beyond a shadow of a doubt that I can step in without missing a beat," Morford said.
Thanks to developer Lennar Homes, the Heritage Isles CDD inherited a golf course, country club and restaurant responsible for paying off $4-million in debt.
Both incumbents and challengers agree that's unworkable. And when the country club can't cover the debt payments, Heritage Isles taxpayers must pony up a "reasonable" share of what's owed.
This has put pressure on a succession of country club managers, most recently a team linked to Saddlebrook Resort.
"They have not lived up to the standards that we expected," said William Martello, a CDD incumbent and president of Heritage Isles' homeowner association. Martello believes it's time to ask Lennar for help with the debt.
The two nonincumbents running for the CDD want to force the issue a little harder.
Barbara Adams, head of the community's Neighborhood Watch efforts, wants to default on the debt. Frank Camara wants to go to court to determine what's "reasonable."
The two sides also differ on security. Martello advocates privatizing Heritage Isles' roads so only residents and their guests could enter. That would be expensive but deliver on the expectations residents had when they bought houses there, Martello said.
Camara believes the community should continue building on Neighborhood Watch. Adams isn't sure but worries about the costs of privatizing the streets.
Jack Meehan is the other incumbent.
An older sibling of Heritage Isles, Heritage Harbor in Lutz also has a golf course, country club and a CDD struggling under its debts.
But however November's vote comes out, Heritage Harbor will have a new generation of CDD leaders.
And they're optimistic that the worst is over, with the family that once operated Rocky's golf course restaurant at the University of South Florida now taking over at Heritage Harbor.
Board candidates Anthony Newlin, Richard Gordon and Jeff LaPace are new incumbents, having been appointed to empty seats in the spring. All are businessmen who pledge to keep a close eye on costs and cash flow.
Sajjad Malik, challenging LaPace, said he would like to see the board become more accountable to homeowners, and hold more frequent meetings.
Candidates Shelley Grandon and Matthew Rametta didn't return calls from the Times.
Since 2004, no Westchase CDD race has been contested. It appeared that 2008 would be no different.
Westchase CDD East board member Anthony Sanchez, whose work schedule prompted him to attend most meetings via telephone, announced in May he would not seek re-election.
That assurance — and a desire to return to community-based politics — prompted former Westchase Community Association president Brian Ross to enter the race unopposed on May 14.
Then on June 20, the last day for candidates to seek elected office in Hillsborough, Sanchez flip-flopped.
He said his position as chief financial officer at Ker's WingHouse in Largo was eliminated and he can now attend meetings in person.
He said his being a certified public accountant and his involvement in the annual budget qualifies him to analyze financial reports and "eliminate unnecessary budget requests in an effort to keep tax assessments to the lowest possible level."
Ross, a lawyer with 25 years of experience in real estate issues, believes in cost-effectiveness, too. But he said he would also focus on "any policy that would support our property being at the exceptional level that it should be for a community such as ours.
"The condition of our property is directly related to the property values of our community."
Mary Castro ran for the Cheval West CDD four years ago, and the election produced a tie, 461-461.
She and her opponent, Nathan Whitaker, agreed to draw cards, ace high. Castro picked the three of clubs; Whitaker, the king of hearts.
Now Whitaker is stepping aside and Castro, a member of the homeowners' board when she lived in next-door Cheval East, is trying again.
She'd like to obtain reclaimed water for the 800-home Cheval West, a project she championed in Cheval East.
Castro's opponent, Pat Hosler, moved here four years ago from St. Louis. She wants to maintain property values and "keep Cheval West in the forefront of residential communities."
Tampa Palms Open Space and Transportation
This CDD operates recreation centers in New Tampa's West Meadows and Richmond Place.
Incumbent Rosanne Clementi is being challenged by Martin Maldonado, a retiree who enjoys community service, and by Susanne Alfonso, who couldn't be reached.
Staff writer Rodney Thrash contributed to this article. Bill Coats can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 269-5309.