John Gagliano shook his right index finger at the board and raised his voice in defense of his embattled neighbor. He pleaded. Shouted. Groveled. And, on this night, failed to change anything in the case of Lake St. George vs. the Legges.
"Are you in your heart and soul comfortable with the idea that you voted to foreclose on this house?" Gagliano asked the community association board during an emotionally charged meeting Thursday. "You can say yes, but with your heart, not your mouth."
As far as Gagliano was concerned, this was a hearing of the community's clemency board, and he was chief counsel for Christopher and Kathy Legge. The outcome was a cogent display of the power that neighborhood associations have over homeowners.
The couple wanted the board to show mercy by reversing its decision foreclose on their house after they failed to pay a $125 chimney painting bill. Or at least to help them buy back.
Board members, with attorney Steven Mezer at their side, rebuked the request. Rules are rules, and there are no exceptions, they said.
"Responsibility has to come from everybody," board president Lillian Sawyer said.
Now the Legges must either purchase their own house back from RSR Investments Inc. of Tampa, the company that bought it for $2,000, or leave whenever the company decides the time is right. The price: $5,000.
"Whatever happened to helping people out?" Christopher Legge asked, fighting back tears. "You don't know what it's like."
The issue arose after the family neglected to respond to the board's repeated written demands that they paint their chimney.
When the association hired painters to do it and the Legges failed to pay the bill, the board placed a lien on the house. Again, the Legges failed to read the notice, they said.
In August, they learned a month after the fact that their house had been sold.
The Legges said they ignored the notices because they were distracted by the illness and death of their daughter and by continuing financial woes. They admitted the board's actions were completely legal. They even turned down a chance to take their case to a judge.
Currently, Christopher is looking for work as a computer technician but doesn't know where to turn. He said he sold his boat, held a garage sale and even accepted donations to keep food on the table.
What else does he have to sell? "My kids? But would you want to do that?" he asked with pained sarcasm.
The four-hour meeting was held in a warm, crowded room in the Palm Harbor Fire Station on West Lake Road. Several of the 40 homeowners who turned out were confrontational at times.
Most sided with the Legges, but a few supported the board's actions, calling the family irresponsible for ignoring the notices.
In what some residents said was the largest turnout ever for a Lake St. George association meeting, many brought up a host of other concerns, from complaints about security guards to accusations that the board rules with an inconsistent iron fist.
But it was the Legges who drew the crowd.
Almost everyone had an opinion one way or the other.
Brenda Watkins: "Now who's going to buy my house in Lake St. George, the place that takes your house away?"
Stuart Kidney: "I can see the people here are threatened by one or all of you (on the board). I have heard not one mention of remorse or sorrow. . . . I'm a busy guy. These are all busy guys. I don't want to be here. I came because I felt there was an injustice done to this man."
Mary Fontana spoke up to defend the board. "It's a pretty solid community," she said. "When people don't want to mow their lawns, take in their newspapers, paint their houses, it looks like crap for the rest of us. Then people don't want to pay their bills."
Association leaders said the real problem was the rules that govern the community, rules that only a referendum could change.
"Every single week without fail we have people complain about deeds and restrictions," Sawyer said. "For years we have been trying to get things changed. But you couldn't get the people to get it together (for a vote)."
The residents, however, reached consensus.
"We voted this board in, we can vote them out," Raymond Belanger said.
The election is in December. Gagliano, the Legges' neighbor, said he'll be on the ballot.