To some St. Petersburg residents, the Council of Neighborhood Associations is considered the city's second tier of leadership behind elected officials like the mayor and City Council.
In its bylaws, CONA's purpose is defined in inclusive words like unite, promote, foster, advocate, encourage and charitable.
But somewhere along the route to community-building, the love train derailed.
In a private e-mail forum for CONA's leaders, a cheery note announcing the coalition's participation in Circus McGurkis, an annual community fair put on by the peace-loving Quakers, took an ugly turn late last month. There were long diatribes that ranged from frustration with the Uhurus to racially charged rhetoric about crime to pointed questions about the leadership in the African-American community.
The original posts and ensuing responses eventually found their way to the mayor and news media, and CONA now finds its credibility under scrutiny.
Although much of the frustration in the e-mail forum was directed at the Uhurus, some writers chose to pounce on a favorite local scapegoat — Goliath Davis, a senior city administrator and former chief of police. (Did you hear that he's the president of all African-Americans in St. Petersburg? That's what some critics say.)
And therein lies the problem. In the private forum some CONA leaders were far more candid about issues of race and crime than they're willing to be in public forums.
This virtual rally went on for four days.
It didn't help matters that CONA president Will Michaels didn't weigh in with a reminder about civility until the last day, shortly after he first became aware of the tone in the forum.
"It takes all of us to pull together to be successful," wrote Michaels. "I recognize the anger and frustration associated with the topics under discussion. But this does not lessen the need for mutual respect in discussing them."
What's most surprising is that some of the most racially charged comments came from members who have overcome personal trials of difference. One of them is president of one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city.
It seems CONA is in need of a Kumbaya time-out.
The song is associated with unity and compassion — quite similar to the intent of Circus McGurkis.
Truth is, even in the most active of neighborhoods, fewer than half the residents regularly engage their neighborhood association. If the majority of households in some of these neighborhoods bothered to vote, their CONA leadership would be quite different.
Last week, Mayor Bill Foster said he found some of the statements offensive. But he refrained from further comments, noting that CONA is a "private group."
Calls from residents suggest that it may be time for a change in CONA leadership.
Michaels has called an emergency meeting of the organization's 10-member executive committee on Monday night. In addition, CONA's nominating committee will deliver a slate of candidates at Wednesday's meeting that could change the leadership as early as January.
But since the committee is handpicked by Michaels, maybe not.
Football player's event to feed 69 families
While some Thanksgiving traditions may be coming to an end, one professional athlete is hoping to start a new one.
A second-year offensive lineman with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will host Demar Dotson's Thanksgiving Family Day from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg.
The event will provide meals for 69 needy families from the local St. Petersburg Police Athletic League and the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast.
The Tampa resident, who is on injured reserve, said he decided to host the event in St. Petersburg because needy families here usually get overlooked.
Why 69 families? Sixty-nine is Dotson's Buccaneers jersey number.
Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at email@example.com or at (727) 893-8874.