Bartell turns wisecrack into good cause

Published Dec. 4, 2002|Updated Sep. 4, 2005

Oh, the roasting that comes with being called a "weenie."

In the two weeks since County Commissioner Jim Fowler branded fellow Commissioner Gary Bartell with the juvenile label, Bartell has faced well-meaning wisecracks everywhere he goes.

One man joked about buying an Oscar Mayer Wiener Mobile and parking it in Bartell's driveway. Countless others have suggested Bartell host a weenie roast for some cause.

"Some people were saying they want to get bumper stickers that say, "I love my weenie,' " said Bartell's wife, Joanne, laughing. "I don't think I could handle that."

Aside from the jokes, however, the Bartells have also heard a lot of angry comments from Homosassa residents offended by Fowler's remarks, the latest in a series of perceived slights to their commissioner and their community.

Instead of getting mad, the Bartells want Homosassa to give something back.

Gary and Joanne Bartell are organizing "The 1st Annual Great Homosassa Weenie Roast," a daylong event Dec. 15 that will feature free food, drinks and entertainment.

The catch: Everyone must bring a gift for a Citrus County foster child who might otherwise have nothing for Christmas this year.

"There was just a lot of angry backlash from citizens about a lot of the stuff that's been in the press lately," Mrs. Bartell said. "There was a lot of ill will and people wanting to write letters and start petition drives. Somewhere along the line, out of pure frustration, I said we need to turn all this energy into positive energy and do something good."

"That was the whole intent," Commissioner Bartell added. "We wanted to turn a negative thing and an angry thing into something that is good for the community."

The event will be held outside Rick and Lori Mallon's home on Halls River Road, at a location called "The Soul of the Hole."

The not-so-subtle reference is to a comment Commissioner Josh Wooten made last month to the Citrus Times, saying, "Most of the garbage the citizens of Citrus County have had to endure for the last year have come out of a very small hole in Homosassa."

Wooten said he was referring to a handful of people who criticized his vote approving the Halls River Retreat condominium project, an issue that led to lawsuits and a bitter election season.

But many residents took Wooten's comment as an insult to their community.

The next incident happened at the Nov. 19 County Commission meeting, where Bartell was out-maneuvered for the chairman's spot. As vice chairman the previous year, Bartell was next in line to hold the gavel, but Wooten and Commissioner Roger Batchelor kept Fowler in the chairman's seat for another year.

The simmering tensions in Homosassa roared to a boil a day later, when Fowler reportedly told the Citrus County Chronicle editorial board that Bartell flip-flops on issues and has failed to show leadership.

"Politically, he's a weenie," Fowler told the Chronicle.

That was the last straw.

"People were upset about their community being called a hole and their commissioner being called a weenie. It was getting to the point where Gary and I couldn't go anywhere without hearing something from someone," Mrs. Bartell said. "It was getting very negative, and we couldn't live our lives that way. So we're grabbing the bull by the horns and turning it into something positive."

The idea was hatched one night at Seagrass Pub and Grill, where several patrons joked with the Bartells about hosting a weenie roast.

"The weenie fundraiser seemed to be the joke of the week," Mrs. Bartell said. "Since the campaign's over, people were saying, "Use the fundraiser to buy me a new house or buy me a new car.' "

Rachel Campbell, a family service counselor for the Department of Children and Families, piped up from her nearby table. If the Bartells were serious about hosting a fundraiser, she said, DCF had a list of Citrus County foster children who need Christmas presents.

The 36 kids, ranging in age from 2 months to 19, are living in foster homes while their parents try to resolve certain issues. In many cases, Campbell said, the children come from low-income families that cannot afford presents.

"We were so fortunate to be confronted this year by the Bartells," Campbell told the Times. "Hopefully the kids will be able to have an awesome Christmas and get what they want under the tree."

Copies of the children's gift wish lists are available at the restaurants sponsoring the event: Seagrass Pub and Grill, Margarita Grill Restaurant, Misty River Restaurant and Charlie Brown's Restaurant.

Mrs. Bartell said she would also collect money at the fundraiser _ through donations and T-shirt sales _ for necessities for the premature baby recently born to Jerry Howell and Cheri Robertson (see related story, Page 1).

Some of the money would also go to buying whatever gifts are not donated Dec. 15 for the foster children, she said.

Aside from the bounty of food the four restaurants will donate for the event, Crystal River residents Bill and Valerie Hunt will perform the weenie-roasting honors with a 12-foot smoker painted like the event's namesake.

Major gift sponsors include Commissioner Bartell's mother, Barbara, as well as the lawyers fighting the Halls River Retreat project. Local attorney Carl Bertoch and the Tallahassee firm of Hopping, Green & Sams both represent Protect Our Waterways, an anticondo group led by Mrs. Bartell.

Although the weenie roast was sparked by a couple of inflammatory comments, Commissioner Bartell says the event itself "is not a political event."

"This is a community event," he said, "and we're excited about it."

_ Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or