The City Council appears ready to develop a long-range plan for its controversial, $2.5-million recreation complex rather than sell it.
Council members debated the issue for more than an hour Tuesday night in a discussion that sometimes degenerated into name-calling and spurred the city attorney to deliver a plea for cooperation and responsible behavior.
While council members Darrell DiGrazia and Ron Smith pushed to unload the 15-acre complex on 113th Street, a majority of the council said it wants to set up a committee to set goals for the city's recreation program and the property for the next several years. The council will discuss that idea next Tuesday night.
"We can't just come down here and argue every night," council member Paul Trexler said. "We have to give something a try."
Said council member Bob Matthews: "People will support us if we tell them what we're going to do and go do it."
Smith and DiGrazia, both elected in March, said they see the property as a symbol of the old council's "rubber stamp" of Mayor Holland Mangum's suggestions.
The property was purchased in two parts: 6 acres, including a former church and school building, for $1.5-million in 1991 and 9 acres for $1-million last spring.
Some residents opposed the purchase, which came at a time when the city was increasing taxes.
Smith and DiGrazia say the previous council did not have all the facts before buying the land. And members of that council admit they found out after the purchase that the building had some major structural problems.
"It was a bad thing you guys did, and I think we can undo it," Smith said.
DiGrazia, who raised the issue Tuesday, said the city has "lost" $95,000 on the property this year. That figure includes salaries of recreation workers, utilities, insurance, repairs and programs.
"We're just going to keep pumping dollar after dollar after dollar after this thing," he said.
According to recreation director Linda Kettell, more than 1,000 people, ages 1 to 85, participated in a Seminole recreation program each week during the winter. During the summer, 200 children attend summer camp there and several hundred children and adults participate in the other programs.
Trexler said about 400 youngsters play soccer on the city's field, too.
"And we're not getting a penny from it," DiGrazia said.
Trexler said providing recreation is a city duty. "You can't charge a toll for somebody to go in there and play ball."
Some programs make money, some lose money, Trexler said. "It's all worth it."
DiGrazia said he thinks the city might have better ways of spending its money, such as starting a police department instead of contracting for service from the Sheriff's Office.
"I don't see anywhere in the CiTy Charter where it says you will duly provide aerobics classes," he said.
Matthews said the city does have an obligation to its residents. The recreation complex serves all residents, especially families with young children. Waffling by the council only diminishes the council's credibility, he said.
"If we gave long-term plans for the property, we could get the support of the residents," he said. "I don't think there is consensus out there to sell the property."
As has become frequent in recent weeks, the discussion among the council members sometimes turned personal Tuesday.
Mayor Mangum, who acts as the city administrator, is on vacation out of state. Smith said he was sorry the issue came up while Mangum is away.
"I'd like to say some things to his fat little face," Smith said.
Later, acting council president Dottie Reeder chastised Smith for being rude and talking over her as she spoke.
Such sniping has become commonplace, especially among the mayor, Smith and DiGrazia.
Smith often accuses Mangum of holding back information or of misrepresenting facts. Mangum, in return, says attorney Smith "cross-examines" speakers and delivers "jury presentations" to the council.
Last month, DiGrazia and Mangum got into a shouting match that had to be gaveled down by council president Jim Dunn.
The hostility finally led John Elias, who has been city attorney for 15 years, to make a plea for cooperation Tuesday night.
"There is an underlying current in this council of some animosity, some antagonism, and I don't understand why," Elias said. "I'm not politically astute, but I disagree that there was a voter mandate for change to the extent to vote to sell that property."
Whatever change the council makes should be responsible change, he said.
He also said the council members should refrain from personal comments.
"If you don't like the mayor .
. at least respect him for what he's done for the community," Elias said. "I doubt you'll find another person in the community who has the community in his mind and soul as he does."
Comments like "his fat little face" diminish the council, Elias said.
"That may be strategy. That may be technique. But I don't think that is engendering a feeling of cooperation."
His comments led to yet another confrontation.
Said DiGrazia: "It sounds to me like (you're saying) us four new guys have got to go along to get along." He said Elias was accusing him of having a bad attitude.
"It certainly comes across as a bad attitude," Elias said.
DiGrazia countered, "I'm 30 years old. I don't have to be told to behave myself."
He said he doesn't like to be told not to make waves. "I'm going to pursue what's best for the city as far as I know."
Elias said, "I'm just passing along information. I don't think you're going to listen anyway. But it does help me to get something off my chest."