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Little League feud gets national notice

(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

A feud between a group of Belmont Heights community members and officers of the neighborhood's storied Little League may soon reach a resolution.

National and regional Little League officials are headed to Tampa on Jan. 24 to try to quell the dispute at Belmont Heights, which has been mired in controversy since last spring when its president took a no-nonsense approach to cleaning up the park.

Little League officials hope to act quickly and get players on the field by next month, the beginning of baseball season.

"I don't know what the resolution is going to be," said Jennifer Colvin, director of Little League's eight-state Southern Region, which is based in St. Petersburg. "I know what I can hope the resolution will be: that in a month's time that Belmont Heights is up and running as it should be."

The conflict centers on Belmont Heights president Annette Jenkins, who clashed with community members after she and her board banned people they called troublemakers from the park. Her actions, she has said, were part of an effort to return the park to its glory days, when kids stepped from Belmont Height's baseball diamonds to careers in the big leagues.

Jenkins' tough stance drew calls for her removal. She and her board initially refused to hold an election, saying they were tenured until 2006. Her adversaries besieged regional and national Little League officials with pleas for intervention.

National officials promised to monitor elections during Belmont Heights' annual meeting last fall. But hurricane season derailed the meeting, and when it was rescheduled, headquarters didn't get the word.

Complaints continued, prompting national league officials to examine Belmont Height's operating procedures. They discovered several administrative problems _ a skipped election, inadequate paperwork _ and placed the league's charter application on hold, putting the 2005 season in jeopardy.

Colvin has planned two meetings. The first, Jan. 24 at Reagan Park Community Center, is a closed-door meeting with Jenkins, her board, national and regional Little League officials and a representative from the city of Tampa, which owns the baseball field.

On Jan. 25, Colvin said, adults associated with Belmont Heights Little League are invited to discuss its status. League officials expect a fractious meeting, as community members debate whether to oust the board. It's scheduled for 7 p.m. at Jackson Heights Park Youth Education Training Facility, 3310 E Lake Ave.

"I'm sure it will be a very frank exchange of some of the past problems and a frank exchange on what needs to be done to resolve them, so that these children have the opportunity to participate in a Little League program," said David James, director of the National Little League's Urban Initiative Program. "We're open to hearing suggestions, ideas and comments on how we can resolve this and everyone can work together."

Whether Jenkins stays or goes is up to the community, Little League officials said.

Jenkins said she has complied with all of Little League's requests and does not know what is left to discuss. Despite claiming tenure until 2006, she said she held an election in September. But Little League officials question whether the election results were representative of the community's wishes because the meeting was not widely publicized.

With one notable exception, Jenkins and much of her board were re-elected. Board member Bishop Michael Lewis stepped down "for the protection of the league and the children because of problems he has with the law," according to the minutes from the meeting. In October, Lewis was indicted in federal district court on charges of conspiracy, bank fraud and money laundering in connection with his church.

Jenkins said she would participate only in the Jan. 24 meeting. Although league officials have planned a private meeting, she said she will bring her supporters and several of the park's sponsors.

"I'll have enough people there at that meeting to speak up for me and my board and what we're doing at Belmont Heights Little League, and you'll see," Jenkins said. "I will not have a closed-door meeting with them. Everything should be out in the open. I don't have anything to hide."

If Jenkins and her board don't resolve their issues with Little League officials, she said she has several plans. Meanwhile, she continues to register children for the coming Little League season.

"We're going on as planned," Jenkins said. "Whatever happens, happens."

Sherri Day can be reached at (813) 226-3405 or sdaysptimes.com.

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