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Civic Club gets last chance to agree

Her head on the table, her hands clenched, City Council member Janice Miller looked as though she was begging for patience. Negotiations with the Oldsmar Civic Club over land needed for a new library had hit yet another snag.

"Good grief," Miller later said she thought. "We have bent over backward. We've done anything and everything we can to get this done. This is the last thing."

Minutes later, the City Council tried to make sure the latest set of changes to the agreement would be the "last thing" by voting to authorize eminent domain proceedings.

If the agreement, which the Civic Club is scheduled to receive today, is signed and returned before the next City Council meeting in two weeks, then the city and the Civic Club can avert a legal confrontation.

If it is not returned signed by then, City Attorney Tom Trask said he will take the first steps toward going to court to acquire the club's property on St. Petersburg Drive through eminent domain. Council members authorized Trask to take that step minutes after voting 3-2 to send the agreement back to the Civic Club with a few additional changes.

"They just keep coming back with more and more changes," said council member Jim Ronecker, who voted against sending the agreement back to the Civic Club. "Their attorney we're paying for isn't even showing up for meetings. . . . We've delayed this for six weeks now and we've gotten nowhere. We need to move forward."

One change stipulates that if the city tried to sell part of the land to a private developer, the property would revert back to the Civic Club. It is a protection similar to an already agreed-upon $250,000 penalty that the city would pay if it breaks any part of the agreement.

With the items discussed at Wednesday's meeting, the negotiations between the city and the club have covered a range of issues that literally includes the kitchen sink. Language guaranteeing that the Civic Club would have a mop sink and the ability to hold activities other than bingo also will be added to the agreement as part of the latest series of changes.

City efforts have been under way for more than a year to put a new $2.9-million library at the Civic Club's current location as part of a plan to revitalize Oldsmar's downtown. But negotiations with the Civic Club have been slow going for the City Council and have become particularly bitter since this spring. Points of dispute have included the size of the club's room at the new library, when the club could use the room and where it would meet during construction.

The Civic Club's demands have been more than justified, club trustee Jim Campoli said, when one considers the club has donated land to the city before, for a cultural arts center, and is doing so again for the library.

"They want to get rid of the Civic Club," Campoli said. "And they want to get rid of the Civic Club building. Why? I don't know."

The city's insistence that the club hold liability insurance to meet in the library seemed to be the only roadblock remaining after the council's last meeting on Sept. 7. And City Manager Bruce Haddock said the club finally agreed to purchase an insurance policy, leading city officials to believe they had a done deal.

But Campoli voiced concern over the set of three new issues at Wednesday's meeting, leading the council to vote to change the agreement one more time. Months of frustrating negotiations and an approaching April deadline to apply for state funding for the library seemed to convince council member Suzanne Vale that the additional batch of changes was one too many.

"To keep them in control of this property is ridiculous," said Vale, who voted against sending the agreement back to the Civic Club.

At times exchanges in the council chambers were sharp.

"This is absolutely absurd," Vale said. "I mean, we're giving everything to them."

"You all haven't given us anything," Civic Club president Betty Kinchen countered. "We were the ones who donated the land to you. Why do you want to step on us?"

Mayor Jerry Beverland said by showing one more instance of good faith in including the three new items in the agreement, the city can say it truly exhausted all possible options before going to court.

"If you don't accept this contract, then you all will be responsible for what happens," he said. "It won't be because of this City Council. . . . We're on the high ground."

But a few more kinks could be on the horizon. The Civic Club has concerns over the legality of playing bingo in the library, said Charles Nead, first vice president of the club.

Since the library will be owned by the city and likely will be frequented by children, issues of gambling on city property and gambling near minors may have to be addressed, Nead said.

Officials with the Florida Attorney General's Office with whom club members said they have talked about the subject could not be reached for comment Thursday.