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Official survives ouster attempt

The Hernando Beach Property Owners Association votes on whether to remove Joan Lentini from its board.

The meeting was long, the tension was thick, and the audience was passionate.

And two sheriff's deputies stood guard just in case tempers got out of hand.

Such was the scene Thursday night as about 130 Hernando Beach Property Owners Association members gathered in the Coast Guard Auxiliary Building.

The crowd and tension were the result of the association's upcoming vote on whether to remove Joan Lentini from its board of directors. In the end Lentini won, with 69 association members supporting her and 61 calling for her removal, she said. A two-thirds vote of the members present _ in Thursday's case that would have been 87 _ was required for her ouster.

"I'm not going to change," Lentini said of the effect the vote would have on her participation in the association. "You can take politics seriously, but you don't have to take it personally."

But personal agendas were what Thursday night's meeting was all about, said Hernando Beach resident and Lentini supporter Christine Doyle.

"It was ugly," she said. "It was awful."

The meeting, which lasted about two hours, was closed to the public. A St. Petersburg Times reporter was forced to leave. Homeowners associations and most other private organizations that do not provide services to state or local governments are generally exempt from Florida's open meeting and public records law.

Advertisements for the meeting did not specify whether the meeting would be open or limited to association members, however.

Association president Cathie Sullivan said the lack of specifics meant the meeting was closed to the public. Lentini, in what has become a familiar refrain, disagreed with Sullivan's assessment. She said the very fact that there were advertisements implied the meeting would be open.

"A meeting should not be advertised unless it's open," Lentini said.

Such clashes are commonplace in the increasingly controversial politics of homeowners associations.

Lentini, who was chosen as the association's volunteer of the year in February, raised the ire of some members after breaking with the rest of the board on the issue of docking commercial boats behind residential properties.

Lentini, who also headed the Hernando Beach Business Association, sided with the Hernando County Marine Industry Council in asking the county to delay taking action while it sought to work out the issue within the community. The rest of the board supported banning commercial boats from docking in residential areas.

The County Commission tentatively approved banning commercial boats longer than 26 feet from residential areas. Sullivan's husband, Paul, who is a county commissioner, voted for the ban. A second public hearing on matter is set for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. A final vote could be taken then.

Lentini's stance eventually prompted Sullivan to send her a letter asking for her resignation. Without going into details, the letter stated that Lentini's actions had been "contrary to the organization's efforts."

After being asked to leave a meeting of the association's board in which strategy for an upcoming county meeting was to be discussed, Lentini hired lawyer Robert Battista. Battista sent each board member a letter which, to some, raised the possibility that Lentini might sue them for libel or slander, making an already uneasy situation even more touchy.

Lentini's possible removal from the board raised strong emotions from those on both sides of the issue because she has a history of service in the community dating to 1986. In addition to being voted the volunteer of the year, she served two terms as the association's president, started the Hernando Beach Crime Watch in 1995 and spearheaded the annual Christmas on the Beach celebration.

Both Sullivan and Lentini said they want to get past the recent controversy and return to some measure of civility.

"(The board) will continue to work toward the directives of the membership," Sullivan said. "That's what our sworn responsibility was and is. The membership rules, that's what you get in a democracy."

Said Lentini:

"I hope that after last night we can get back to normal business. There probably will be some people who will not accept my presence, but it's time to move on."

Toward that end, Doyle hopes everyone in Hernando Beach can get past the political backbiting and realize that some things in life are more important than ideological or personal disagreements.

"Let's face it, we're older people," Doyle said. "I don't want to spend time haggling like this. Let's just get the vote over so I can get out and watch television."