The questionable judgment of a city staffer made a big splash at last week's meeting of the Wildwood Heights Homeowners Association.
According to the agenda, residents were to get an update on the Jennie Hall Pool at 1025 26 St. S and its potential designation as a historic landmark.
But they also learned that there had been a possible breach of trust at the pool that City Council member Wengay Newton called "theft."
Here's what happened: On July 2, a city staffer who works at the pool — and whom the city refuses to identify — hosted a party for at least 80 people at another pool, Lake Vista, for her granddaughter. She paid $168 per hour for the private party.
Things went so well that the staffer invited everybody to a free swim at Jennie Hall the next day.
Under city policy, it costs $2.50-$3 to swim at any of the city's nine municipal pools. Because many of the children in the Wildwood Heights neighborhood can't afford that, residents created the Jennie Hall Trust to pay the fee for poor children while increasing attendance at the pool.
The unidentified staffer knew that she could continue the large party under the free plan, with few questions. But she didn't realize one of the guests was a resident of Wildwood, which is how neighborhood leaders learned of the free party.
To make matters worse, residents in the neighborhood say they had been turned away in recent weeks by workers at the pool.
On Wednesday, Lillian Baker, president of Wildwood Neighborhood Association, wrote city officials after residents said children were being denied access to the pool.
"I have referred several families who cannot afford the fee for entry and they were denied entry into the pool," Baker wrote. "I have great concerns when I keep hearing on a daily basis that they are being denied entry to Jennie Hall pool when I know that funds are still available."
City officials agree that money is still in the trust.
"Some staff were not up to speed on the arrangement at the pool," said Clarence Scott III, the city's leisure and community services administrator. "That has been subsequently addressed."
When the Jennie Hall Trust was created, it had $3,732.70. Last summer the trust paid $1,300.50 for children who couldn't afford to pay. At the end of June, the balance in the trust was $2,224.95, said Gretchen Tenbrock, the city's recreation manager.
The pool was the first municipal pool to open to African-American residents after Jennie Hall made a $25,000 donation in 1953. The pool, built to accommodate 250, opened a year later. Hall, an 83-year-old white teacher from North Dakota, told the St. Petersburg Times then that it was the "happiest" day of her life.
A year ago, Mayor Bill Foster considered closing Jennie Hall because of poor attendance. But after public outcry, that plan was shelved.
On Friday, Foster and Scott said Jennie Hall's numbers are down this year. In 2009, the pool's attendance was 4,901. In 2010, it was 4,822.
But some residents argue that the low number may reflect that children were being turned away earlier this summer because staffers at the pool were unaware of the arrangement set up by the Jennie Hall Trust.
On Friday afternoon, city officials were scheduled to meet to discuss the Jennie Hall staffer who hosted the free party there.
"It was obviously a poor choice by the employee," Scott said. "I am going to direct the staff to set up a meeting with the Wildwood Neighborhood Association president on the matter."
At their meeting Thursday, Wildwood residents agreed that they should be reimbursed for use of the pool and the staffer should be suspended.
"We raised the money, so we could get the numbers up. But when they show up, they're turned away," said Newton, who attended the meeting.
"If she had done that at North Shore Pool, she would have been fired."
Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at email@example.com or at (727) 893-8874.