ST. PETERSBURG — It started with a benign message promoting the Quaker-sponsored Circus McGurkis fair in a neighborhood coalition's private e-mail forum.
But the responses ricocheted into a racially charged debate about crime in St. Petersburg, producing a rare glimpse into the thoughts of some leaders in the city's influential Council of Neighborhood Associations. Those thoughts were considered offensive and racist by some; straight talk by others.
The discussion centered on problems affecting blacks in the city, sparking debate about the city's police force, the Mayor's Office and how leadership fails to solve social ills in dozens of e-mails between Oct. 27 and 30. Often in stark words, writers expressed their frustrations and divisions on race.
Now black leaders are cutting ties with one CONA member and calling for forums to teach racial tolerance.
Mayor Bill Foster, who was copied on some e-mails, said he found some statements offensive but would leave it to CONA to address as a private group.
CONA president Will Michaels acknowledged some remarks were "badly worded" and offensive. But he defended the right for members in the 56-neighborhood group to debate issues in the private forum. In this case, one problem was the opinions didn't stay private. Secrecy evaporated with an Oct. 29 e-mail by Stephen Corsetti, a Riviera Bay neighborhood leader who last year ran unsuccessfully for the council. Corsetti questioned what happened to days of police "just going in, kicking butt and taking numbers?"
He also questioned the motives and effectiveness of Goliath Davis, a senior city administrator who is black.
"Is he just an enabler or perhaps one of the Master's (sic) of the 'Plantation'? " asked Corsetti, referring to a book called Uncle Sam's Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America's Poor and What We Can Do About It.
Corsetti noted that he copied the e-mail to the "Big Guy" — the mayor — turning at least part of the e-mails public.
Corsetti did not return calls seeking comment. CONA members said he was on vacation.
Foster said he found Corsetti's description of Davis offensive.
Corsetti's statements also roiled local publisher Gypsy Gallardo and other officials with Agenda 2010, an advocacy effort on city policies that affect black residents. Gallardo started her own e-mail chain to the Times and other community members with the eye-catching subject: "A whites-only conversation about race in St. Petersburg."
She called Corsetti's e-mail blatantly racist along with messages from a neighborhood president complaining that black residents commit most crime.
Agenda 2010 then decided to severe ties with Corsetti, a retired New England police chief who worked on the group's public safety efforts. Gallardo, publisher of the Power Broker, wrote an article about it.
"These weren't just any white people, like the rank-and-file racists who post blog comments to the St. Petersburg Times website," she wrote. "These white brothers and sisters are the presidents and officers of neighborhood associations and crime watch groups all over St. Petersburg."
Michaels said Thursday that the e-mails don't represent the policies of CONA, a group whose size and history give it clout in most debates at City Hall.
Michaels tried to quell the fiery remarks by sending his own e-mail on Oct. 30, advising members to be more respectful and explaining ways the group encouraged diversity and helped neighborhoods across the city, particularly Midtown.
He also said Thursday that Corsetti has been a valuable member: "Steve has done good things for the neighborhoods and the community."
The online conversation turned to race after someone asked if the Uhuru movement would have a booth at Circus McGurkis.
The e-mails were not all racially charged, or of one opinion. Diane McSpiritt, a mediator and part-time college teacher from Shore Acres, expressed shock.
"I want to say that I have read this thread of e-mails, and if I didn't know better, I would think this was the 1960s. Are you kidding me???" she wrote.
Added Ann Hildebran of Bartlett Park: "Using the listbot as a forum for frustrations when CONA hasn't given attention to the complexity and sensitivity of the matter risks deepening negativity without moving us forward."
Lakewood Estates neighborhood president Judy Ellis added to the incendiary debate, noting, "in this city the black population is responsible for 100% of the homicides (or was in 2009)."
She went on to say that she felt a "common thread in the black community" is that residents have "no sense of consequences," an inability to delay gratification and a refusal to accept to responsibility. She also criticized Gallardo for continually talking about the problem with no measurable results.
On Thursday, Ellis stood by the crux of her remarks, saying Gallardo was playing the race card and "confusing the truth with racism." But she acknowledged her murder statistic was wrong, saying she should have said the statistics were for the first six months of 2008.
"If you're a racist, you don't live in Lakewood Estates," Ellis said. "You go to the far north side, to Pinellas Park, if you don't want to live with people of color."
Eagle Crest leader Lance Lubin defended her Thursday. "Sometimes, the truth hurts. Neither Steve Corsetti or Judy Ellis are racist and to paint them that way is inflammatory and disgusting," he wrote in an e-mail.
St. Petersburg minister Watson Haynes said he asked the Florida Commission on Human Relations to look into the matter.
"This is a civil rights issue, it's a race issue, and I don't think people need to just sit down and allow them to make statements," Haynes said.
President Greg Johnson of the Pinellas County Urban League replied to Gallardo's call to action, saying it was just "the tip of the iceberg."
"There is an increasing venom against Black people with each passing day," he wrote, noting it doesn't apply to "all white folks."
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who lives in Lakewood Estates, said the exchanges were unusual from CONA and rekindled memories of the racial discord that plagued the city in the 1990s. The generalizations were unhelpful, he said, and don't reflect the progress being made.
Go Davis said he wasn't surprised by the e-mails.
"This is not necessarily out of character," Davis said. "I think the unfortunate part is CONA seems to be hellbent on living in the past as opposed looking to the future."
Ray Tampa of the St. Petersburg NAACP said Thursday he didn't think Corsetti or Ellis was racist, but said the exchanges may have crossed the line.
"First and foremost, there is a frank discussion about some of the issues in our community," he said. "And I hear black people talking about them in very similar ways."
Michaels said he welcomes Gallardo's offer of dialogue, and has talked to Tampa about it.
"It's unfortunate a couple of e-mails bring about those kind of stereotypes of our organization," he said.
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.