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North Greenwood sounds off

Mayor Rita Garvey implored North Greenwood residents to feel free to "say some good news, too," as they prepared to sound off at a town meeting.

But hardly a kudo was heard.

About 45 people passionately _ and sometimes angrily _ expressed neighborhood concerns ranging from garbage in Stevenson Creek to the effectiveness of the neighborhood police substation.

Most City Commission members listened quietly to residents' complaints Thursday evening. Commissioners Dick Fitzgerald and Sue Berfield sat mute but took notes during the meeting. Commissioner Art Deegan spoke briefly. Garvey and Commissioner Fred Thomas dominated discussion from city officials, and they usually were on the defensive.

Still, Garvey said the 90-minute meeting was useful. Residents received handfuls of information at display tables set up by city departments before the meeting started at the Martin Luther King Center, 1201 Martin Luther King Drive. The city sponsors town meetings four times a year in different areas.

"It's always a learning experience," Garvey said. "I think I have a better feel for the community."

Some residents who attended Thursday's meeting weren't so sure.

"This was a complete farce. People bring up the same issues and ask good questions, and we get some of the same responses, but nothing ever gets done," said Wali-uddin Shabazz. The commissioners "treat us like we're children."

Among the issues brought out that commissioners had heard before included pleas for dredging Stevenson Creek and getting the police substation staffed around the clock. For financial reasons, commissioners said, they had no immediate plans to deal with either.

Some accused Garvey of being testy with residents, perhaps, they said, because of familiarity with the issues and the individuals who introduced them, yet again.

"I thought (Garvey) was really arrogant," Shabazz said. "It's like they've heard some of this so many times it rolls right off their backs."

The assessment surprised Garvey.

"If I seemed impatient with people, it certainly wasn't intentional," Garvey said. "I thought there was an excellent turnout and I came prepared to hear the issues."

Regardless of the city officials' intentions, residents clearly were frustrated with their local government. People wanted to know why they had to pay $3 per month for gas meters whether they used them or not. They asked why part of what they pay on their phone bills goes to the city. They even asked why they couldn't include certain plastics in their recycling bins.

The city's proposed Countryside community center was a particular sore spot among attendees. Garvey maintained that the $1.25-million center is needed in Countryside because "it's the only area that doesn't have one in the city of Clearwater."

Residents disputed that, saying that people in Countryside have easier access to the Long Center on Belcher Road and that the money could better be spent building a new center in North Greenwood, or at least expanding activities at the King Center.

"I'm tired of basketball and football being the only sports geared to the African-American community. These kids want gymnastics, they want hockey, they want soccer," Diane Fowler said while many in the audience nodded in agreement. "Stop stereotyping this community. You can play a role and get these kids out of the road you've dug for them."

One of the only compliments of the evening came when Alfred Bridges, who has lived in Clearwater since 1925, praised substation Sgt. Ed Griffin for disbanding a "gang" that was selling drugs on scooters. But behind the plaudit came this passionate statement: "The drug dealers are still taking over. If the drug dealers have more power than the police, then we don't need them. . . . Businesses are being killed because of drug pushers."

Bridges also expressed disappointment about reporting a drug transaction he witnessed to police, only to have them never show up. His comments prompted others to voice discontent with the substation because of erratic hours and poor attitudes by some police officers, residents said. Again, Garvey took exception to the criticism.

"I think the substation has made a tremendous difference in this community," she said.

Although some residents called the town meeting a waste of time, Muhammad Abdur-Raheem, president of the North Greenwood Association, said he was encouraged by many of the hard-hitting questions produced by "regular folks."

"It shows the community is coming into its own," Abdur-Raheem said. "Before, it was always the "leaders' who asked all the tough questions. Now, more people are speaking up about what's going on around them.

"And the commissioners sat back and listened, like they were supposed to."