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Pandemonium reigns at St. Petersburg City Council meeting

Published Feb. 4, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — It's common for the City Council and Mayor Bill Foster to have boring debates on many issues.

But not Thursday night.

A gavel slammed the dais. Shouts echoed. Tempers flared. And Twinkies entered the talk. Emotions then soared when a community activist joined the ruckus.

The nearly three-hour meeting was uneventful until the talk turned to Sweetbay Supermarket closing its store in Midtown.

For nearly 10 minutes, council member Wengay Newton accused Foster of not taking action to prevent the closing. He also faulted Foster for not keeping the council informed of important issues.

"I am severely heartbroken," Newton said. "We're going to single-handedly almost kill the community."

Foster then accused Newton of politicizing the closing.

Newton then shouted about the hypocrisy of Foster calling a news conference on Monday with African-American politicians on Martin Luther King Day. Newton said Foster should have told everyone about a meeting Sweetbay had with Foster in 2011.

Both men then raised their voices at each other.

Council Chair Karl Nurse repeatedly banged his gavel to restore order, but Newton wouldn't be silenced: "You can bang all you want, Karl!"

Once calm was restored, Foster and Newton continued to snipe.

Council member Leslie Curran jumped in with issues she had with Foster over the past three years.

She lambasted him on the stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays over a new stadium, knocking down a house in 2011 after a gunman killed police and what the city spent on the Republican National Convention.

Curran also reminded him that he is the mayor of St. Petersburg, not Twinkie town. "This is St. Petersburg," she said, "and we deserve better than this."

Foster told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday that blaming him for the Sweetbay closing is like blaming the mayor of Twinkie town for closing the Twinkie plant.

That's when Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter asked to speak.

The community activist ripped off her baseball hat and belted into a microphone like a preacher shouting at her flock.

The lifelong Midtown resident accused the entire group of acting like children, saying: "I'm thoroughly disgusted with all of you!"

She continued for a few minutes and told council member Jeff Danner that everyone in the "hood" knows that he votes with Curran on legislation. Lassiter then told Newton that it isn't always about him.

She then challenged all the officials to stop the bickering and help the residents.

"You all need to put this pettiness aside," Lassiter said. "You say you're all adults. You wonder why the children and young people in the community act out at school? Because they're looking at us! What are you showing them? How to hate? … You have to make a choice."

She turned her back to the podium and shouted: "I'm sorry, but I'm sick of it. Y'all are playing games."

Nurse then thanked her for speaking.

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

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