At a tennis resort just north of the Pasco-Hillsborough County line, members of the New Tampa Community Council put down their cocktails and took their seats. They had come to discuss a crime watch, award scholarships and hear about prospects for hosting the Olympics.
But two of the group's regulars were noticeably missing. "Don and Mike have their big thing with the city tonight," board member Carol Poland explained.
The "big thing" was a closed-door meeting with Mayor Dick Greco's top aide. Mike Carricato, Don Nevins and other select homeowners whose neighborhoods are outside the Tampa city limits, were deliberating whether their neighborhoods should become part of Tampa. Ever since January, when the men wrote to Greco, city officials have been trying to win them over.
No one asked the men to act. Nevins, who helped initiate the meetings, does not even sit on any of the association boards.
So how do they manage a sit-down with the mayor's development guru? It helps that Tampa needs Pebble Creek to get at a bigger real estate deal to the north. But the reality comes down to leadership in New Tampa, which right now is up for grabs.
In just 10 years New Tampa has grown from barely 7,000 people to nearly 27,000 huddled together in deed-restricted communities. That's more than half the population growth for the city of Tampa.
The area also has a municipal identity crisis. Parts are governed by the city of Tampa and others by Hillsborough County.
Nuts-and-bolts decisions are made by homeowner associations and taxing districts. Broader positions are taken by small civic associations, many with hardly enough members to call themselves groups. Lacking history, the area is ripe for activists and ideologues aiming to orchestrate one voice for New Tampa.
"There are some very strong personalities involved in what's happening in New Tampa," said Scott Paine, who represented New Tampa on the City Council from 1991 to 1999. "Not only strong interests, but strong personalities. Some of those folks don't get along with each other, and that's another reason for that fragmentation."
What's in a name?
A retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, a PTA president and the editor of the community newspaper are among the active citizens serving on the New Tampa Community Council. The council boasts more than 175 area businesses and homeowners as members, claiming the most unified voice in New Tampa.
But with all that clout, meetings rarely draw enough people to fill a few dozen folding chairs.
"I think that is the nature of any place you live," said Gary Nager, who lives in Hunter's Green and serves on the board. "Some people are active. The majority are not."
The influence of this tight-knit group has pushed officials to allocate money for area traffic studies to build an East-West highway connector. They have successfully lobbied against a four-story storage facility and helped convince Wal-Mart not to stock guns at its store next to Wharton High School. The council has also launched splinter groups, such as the New Tampa Transportation Task Force and the New Tampa Emergency Preparedness Committee.
But their meetings lately have focused on long lines at the post office, an annual business expo and the need for subcommittees to prepare New Tampa for a possible evacuation. Critics say the council is misleading in name, serving the interests of Hunter's Green and Pebble Creek while ignoring those on the other side of Interstate-75.
"It's a pseudo chamber of commerce," said Bob Van Sickler, former president of the Tampa Palms Owners Association. "They select their own people. There is very little representation from Tampa Palms."
Van Sickler said Nager has done a better job addressing the area's concerns in the New Tampa Neighborhood News, his twice-monthly community newspaper mailed to more than 20,000 homes at no charge.
"Here we have a newspaper, a free newspaper, that has really pulled people together," said Van Sickler. "That's unusual." Nager, known for his distinct voice on the editorial pages, called the council New Tampa's best efforts for unity.
"You live in this country, you are never going to get people to agree on everything," he said. "You can't. When you serve on a volunteer organization, you have to deal with people you disagree (with)."
Can't we all get along?
One of the biggest problems with leadership is getting people to agree. First, they must find common ground. With 22 square miles, there's a lot to cover.
In West Meadows, a civic association formed to lobby against the East-West highway after finding little support from the New Tampa Transportation Task Force, a council sub-group that was a major proponent of the road.
"The group has a legitimate concern that their voice will not be heard within the community council as it relates to the East-West road," said Mark Fitzpatrick, chairman of the Tampa Palms Community Development District and a member of the community council. "The reason their voice is not heard is because they are in the minority."
Marshall Adams, president of the West Meadows Civic Association, said the groups agree on all other transportation projects.
Still, he questions the legitimacy of one voice in New Tampa. "I don't think there is one super organization that truthfully represents all of New Tampa, that can speak for all of New Tampa," he said.
Threats of building a highway through one neighborhood can drive people together.
But some people stand alone.
Bob Doran had served on both the Tampa Palms CDD board and on the New Tampa Community Council. But after expressing strong opinions and waging a successful lawsuit against the taxing district, Doran has become the proverbial outsider.
Now he fires off daily e-mails to anyone and everyone, from elected leaders to his most trenchant adversaries. He attends meetings and public hearings, sharing his opinions freely, and has organized the Tampa Palms Civic Association, a group whose membership numbers he declines to divulge.
"You can have an organization of one, two or three people that can represent the consensus of ideas in the community," he said, "and you can have a group of 30 people that represent their own interest. As far as I'm concerned, the number of members is not important."
The real power struggle
Complicating the power grab is the fact that most of New Tampa sits inside the Tampa city limits, represented on the City Council by Shawn Harrison of Tampa Palms. Some communities, such as Pebble Creek and Cross Creek, are in unincorporated Hillsborough County, and they represent a small fraction of Jim Norman's County Commission district.
Tampa and Hillsborough seem to be at odds over the direction of New Tampa, and each maintains a stake in the community. The county presides over the two major roads, Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Cross Creek Boulevard. A separate entity, the Hillsborough County School District, controls all of the public schools.
Tampa has jurisdiction over most of the other neighborhoods and is constantly working deals with developers and residents to gain every last parcel. The city also provides most police and fire protection, along with the majority of water and sewer service.
State agencies deal with major traffic improvements, and there is rapid growth just north of the county line in the Meadow Pointe area, which considers itself a part of New Tampa, too.
"There is no central government, and there ought to be some central focus," said Van Sickler. "Some place where people can turn for answers."
More often, the problem comes down to apathy and lack of organization. Neighborhoods like those in South Tampa and Lutz share similar problems. But observers say stronger community ties forged through time have helped those neighbors come together in unison.
Many vote in the November presidential and mid-term elections, but have yet to make a connection to the city's municipal elections held in March.
"I also think that when you talk to people in South Tampa, they are quick to see (issues) as related to the city of Tampa," said Paine. "You talk to people in New Tampa, and they are quick to see them related to their CDD or homeowners association."
These two entities decide if you can park a truck in your driveway and what color you can paint your home. They even have rules for the size of your dog. But while taxing districts are subject to Florida's open meetings laws, homeowner associations are not.
Nor are they expected to publicize and open the informal meetings between city consultant Ron Rotella and the small group of homeowners in the Pebble Creek area. The city needs their support if it wants to build a contiguous land mass that can accommodate new developments in Grand Hampton, Scala and the K-Bar Ranch.
Nevins, who retired after 31 years working for General Motors in the finance division, defended the closed-door meetings. He said the group does not have the capacity for additional homeowners, lacks the resources to record meetings and has no interest in allowing reporters around during negotiations.
Ultimately, the communities cannot become part of the city without a majority vote from homeowners.
"We are not making any decisions for the people," he said. "The people have to vote on it, and if they vote against it, they vote against it. And if they vote for it, they vote for it. But we are not going to the people until we have the answers to all of our questions."
Private meetings are not new for Nevins, who is chairman of the New Tampa Transportation Task Force. Those meetings follow similar protocol. Some are open. Most are not.
Jim Davison of Hunter's Green, a colleague on the task force, said privacy is often necessary.
"Many times we have to keep the group meetings, not necessarily in hiding, but we don't announce them," he said. "We have to sit down in a short amount of time and go over the work we have."
Residents who have not worked their way into these inner circles are not entirely without a voice. Davison, who is considering a bid for County Commission, pointed out that the most local seats of power rest in the homeowner associations.
"I think everyone should always observe what their homeowners associations are doing," said Davison. "I'm not about to speak for the members of the board of Pebble Creek."
Michael Sandler can be reached at (813) 226-3472 or sandlersptimes.com.