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State lawmakers aim to reduce size of Largo work release center

State Sen. Jack Latvala, left, answers residents’ questions at the Embassy Mobile Home Park in Largo on Thursday. Beside him are park manager Jessie Buchholtz, state Rep. Ed Hooper, Randy Tifft of the DOC, and homeowners president Ron Russell.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

State Sen. Jack Latvala, left, answers residents’ questions at the Embassy Mobile Home Park in Largo on Thursday. Beside him are park manager Jessie Buchholtz, state Rep. Ed Hooper, Randy Tifft of the DOC, and homeowners president Ron Russell.

LARGO — Talk of more lighting, better cameras and a razor wire fence drew appreciative nods from the crowd gathered Thursday morning to discuss the troubled work release center next door.

But enthusiastic applause broke out after a woman gripped a microphone and addressed the panel of politicians and state officials sitting at the front of the Embassy Mobile Home Park clubhouse.

"I feel like Goodwill has violated the public trust," said Carol Dattoli, 67, who lives in a nearby townhome complex. "I would like to know if there's any chance we can shut it down."

The short answer from state Sen. Jack Latvala and state Rep. Ed Hooper: probably not.

Still, the lawmakers pledged to work to downsize the 281-bed Goodwill-run Largo Residential Re-Entry Center, which leads the state in size and escapes, and even shut it down if the nonprofit doesn't follow through with recent recommended changes.

"If they don't clean up their act, and clean it up soon … I will do my best to say goodbye to them," said Latvala, who added that he wants people working at the work release center to have the same training as other state corrections institutions. "I'm not going to forget about this."

It was Latvala and Hooper's second visit to the mobile home park. The lawmakers hosted a similar meeting with concerned residents on Jan. 8, a day after the state conducted a surprise security audit at the center.

The facility has been under increased scrutiny after local authorities accused two inmates of violent crimes. Michael Scott Norris, police said, escaped from the facility in September, then killed two men working at a home in St. Petersburg. Just a few months later, inmate Dustin Kennedy was arrested on charges that he raped a 17-year-old girl on her way to school.

Authorities discovered both men, who are in jail awaiting trial, violated policies at the facility, including skirting rules about transportation and possessing contraband.

Officials at the Florida Department of Corrections, which contracts with Goodwill to run the center, said in a report this week that the facility lacked basic security and the staff has not complied with program requirements.

Randy Tifft, a regional DOC director, told the residents he has met several times with Goodwill and will make sure it follows through with the state's recommendations. Many already have been implemented.

Goodwill is still in the process of putting up a razor wire fence at the back of the property, spokeswoman Chris Ward told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday.

"The safety of the citizens is paramount to me, the senator, the representative, the Department of Corrections and Goodwill Industries," Tifft said. "We do want to make this right."

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gual­tieri, who also was at the meeting, said his deputies have made 60 visits to the facility in the past 30 days to keep an eye on things. He also said Largo police, who share jurisdiction over the park, have stepped up patrols.

Dattoli, who is president of the Whitney Lakes homeowners association, said she understands the need for re-entry programs. She thinks they're a good idea.

But she said the neighborhood was changed forever when the work release center came in, and not for the better.

Dattoli said neighbors are afraid of walking dogs late at night, especially after the rape, which happened not far from the complex.

But Embassy resident Bill Swenson, who just bought a home in the park, said Goodwill deserves praise for its work.

"They're doing everything they can," he said. "Everybody thinks it's a great idea. But nobody wants it in their back yard."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

State lawmakers aim to reduce size of Largo work release center 01/31/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 31, 2013 5:42pm]
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