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Residents protest Palmetto commission takeover of CRA

PALMETTO — It was standing room only in the City Commission chambers Monday as people voiced their concerns over the commissioners assuming the powers of the Community Redevelopment Agency.

About 10 of the more than 100 spoke against the proposal during the public hearing, with a like amount giving up their time for others to speak longer than the 2-minute time limit.

After listening to the pleas of speakers, which included state Rep. Darryl Rouson, and Ed Bailey, president of the local NAACP branch, the commissioners voted 3-1, with Commissioner Mary Lancaster dissenting, to approve the ordinance that puts the power of the CRA in the hands of the city commission.

Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat whose district includes a portion of Palmetto, said he considered this issue very serious and asked commissioners to be “cautious and prudent” with their decision.

“I understand the CRA has done a good job,” he said. “The motion of progress has been cranked and the residents of Ward 1 are moving down the highway with a date with destiny.”

The CRA district includes all of Ward 1, which is predominantly a minority population.

The representative of District 55 warned the commissioners he will be “responsive if the residents call.”

Bailey also voiced his concern before the commissioners took their action, questioning the motives of the commission.

“This issue came up overnight,” he said. “Why so fast?”

Rodney Jones, who was raised in Palmetto and was a former vice president of the Manatee County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the commission was acting before it had all the facts.

“I understand the CRA is not under any audit action,” Jones said.

He said an audit should be performed to see if the CRA has done anything wrong.

“This issue is really dividing the community down the middle,” Jones said. “The African-American community in the past has been slighted and I’d hate to see the city divided along racial lines.”

Other speakers voiced their concerns of Ward 1 returning to when city commissions neglected the neighborhood and spent city tax dollars only on the west side of the city.

After the public hearing was closed, the commissioners spoke on the issue, with Lancaster repeating the issues she outlined in a letter to the Office of the State Attorney General.

“I question the process and the true motivation for change,” she said.

Lancaster said she had concerns with the mayor being the presiding officer of both the commission and the CRA board, and also the one who will appoint the newly created CRA advisory board.

Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said the city charter that set up this procedure was approved in 2004, and Lancaster voted for it.

The other commissioners outlined their reasons for needing the change.

“There’s a lot of rumors in the community,” said Commissioner Tambra Varnadore, “a lot of it unfounded.”

Commissioner Brian Williams said the commission was better suited to make the decisions of the CRA board, while Commissioner Tamara Cornwell said she was not happy with how the former board spent some of its funds.

Commissioner Alan Zirklebach, the former chairman of the CRA before winning his commission seat in November, was not present at the meeting.