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Volunteers resign as city hall flap roils

The two municipal panel members are protesting the treatment of the new city hall advisory committee.

There is no shortage of hard feelings in the city hall melodrama.

Two resident volunteers have resigned their positions on municipal committees because City Manager Carl Schwing requested a criminal investigation of the citizens appointed to monitor the development of a new city hall.

"Recent unpleasant events have placed the City Hall Advisory Committee in the center of a political storm," wrote member Charles Keator. "We have been viewed as useless at best and sometimes as meddlesome and even counterproductive by the other entities involved in the project. . . . As my contribution toward solving this problem, I hereby tender my resignation."

William Thompson, a member of the city's General Employees' Pension Board, also resigned over the city's "treatment" of the city hall committee. He wrote: "I share with others a reluctance to work for a community which holds volunteers in such cheap regard."

The City Hall Advisory Committee, whose members fielded questions Friday from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, earlier in the week criticized a Schwing initiative that appears to eliminate its oversight role.

"We as a committee object to these limitations," said Chairman Jack Ohlhaber, who said the new rules have given the committee "heartburn." He also said "I was shocked when I found out this thing (the criminal investigation) had gone forward. We all thought we did was what we were supposed to do."

After Ohlhaber and his colleagues wrote a letter critical of city hall's developer, Paul Skipper, Schwing asked the police chief to request an investigation into possible Sunshine Law violations. The letter was not produced at a public meeting.

At their four-hour meeting Wednesday, committee members focused on their deteriorating relationship with the city manager.

Committee member Ron Holehouse said he was "personally and professionally humiliated" by the state attorney's investigation. "I've never been criminally prosecuted in my life and I'm damned if it will happen in a volunteer situation. The allegations are unproven and off the wall. It just offends me. This board does the best of its ability and the city manager wants us prosecuted criminally. I have a problem with that."

"Some of us have 20 to 25 years of service to the city and we have done nothing wrong," said committee member Jim Nelson. "You're going to have a lot of people who aren't going to want to help the city (by volunteering for boards and committees)."

Former Mayor Terry Gannon said of the city's actions: "I am saddened. . . . If I were sitting up there, I'd be absolutely furious. It's just absolutely bizarre. I call on the City Commission to have an open meeting or workshop to find out how it has gotten to this point."

Finally, the committee sought to establish its niche in the city hall project.

After Schwing and Mayor Ward Friszolowski had persuaded architect Mike Russell to continue representing the city in the project, the city manager wrote a memo that appeared to remove the advisory committee from the grapevine.

"One primary communications link between the city and Wannemacher/Russell must be established and maintained. Therefore, it is our mutual feeling that the primary contact . . . be only between City Manager Carl Schwing and Mike Russell. All other parties should direct their questions through the City Manager's office," stated Schwing's memo that summarized the meeting with Russell.

Holehouse said he "has a real problem with this," adding that the committee "has not been getting information" from the city manager.

"I hope this was not a way of making this (committee) go away, because it won't work. Let's stop playing whatever is being played out there."

The committee made these recommendations:

A City Commission "investigation" of how and why the state attorney was asked to investigate possible Sunshine Law violations.

Reversal of the communications restriction between the committee and Russell, the architect.

A guarantee that final plans for city hall will be reviewed by the committee prior to their presentation to the City Commission.

The city reached a design-build agreement with Skipper last year to erect a $2.8-million City Hall at the foot of Corey Causeway on land Skipper would donate to the city. The cost of the building has escalated to at least $3.08-million and perhaps nearly $4-million, according to a Times estimate of the project's costs.

Skipper now says he may back out of the deal unless the city agrees to renegotiate its contract with him and resolve the numerous controversies.