Recall of leader a little squirelly

Some Towne Park residents see the ousting of the association chief

as another instance of a board out of touch.


Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times


Published August 6, 2006

TOWN 'N COUNTRY - Olga Garcia just wanted to help her neighborhood.

After living in Towne Park for more than a decade, Garcia wanted to give something back to the 97-home community just off Wilsky Road at Linebaugh Avenue. So when the president of the homeowners association board announced his resignation in April, Garcia offered to serve.

The association's longtime vice president, Peggy Romine, and secretary, William Zapata, welcomed her.

But Garcia didn't last through May. Romine engineered a recall petition, Garcia said. The reason isn't clear. Neighbors say Romine told each of them a different story. Romine has declined to talk to the Times.

But Garcia has a theory. It involves squirrels. Squirrels that Romine raises in her back yard.

"The squirrels are coming in here on my property and everybody else's property," explains Garcia, a corporate biller. "Another homeowner got upset because of her bylaw violation. I brought it up. I said, 'Hey, a homeowner got upset. What are you going to do concerning your squirrels?' She went ahead and she recalled me."

Underlying the squirrel question was a deeper concern that the board, which signs off on all deed enforcement actions, has wielded its power unevenly. Just as it overlooked the squirrels, Garcia contends, the board routinely ignored rule violations by some neighbors while coming down hard on others.

She says it keeps no detailed meeting records, goes through a different manager almost yearly and will not willingly reveal how it spends the homeowners' annual $250 dues. Garcia called for changes. She wound up on the outside.

Kirk Moren knows the feeling. The software engineer, who has lived in Towne Park for about eight years, served as board president for about five months in 2004 and 2005, recommending similar improvements to the bylaws and procedures.

"I wanted to be consistent, fair, objective and democratic," Moren said. The rules didn't even have strict definitions, he says, the way most of the board liked it.

"I kept on asking," he says. "I was never given access to any documents."

In the face of resistance to his reform efforts, Moren resigned. He no longer participates in the association.

Also raising questions is John Hartley, who has lived in Towne Park since the late 1990s and found the association meetings to be little more than gripe sessions.

When Romine came around asking for signatures to remove Garcia from office, Hartley signed without asking questions.

Neighbors started talking among themselves soon afterward, though, and discovered that each had been told a different reason why the board wanted to recall its newly appointed president. Some attended the next board meeting where, according to neighbor Carolyn Sanders, "Peggy said they couldn't get along."

"The thing is, we want things done," says Sanders, who has lived in Towne Park for 14 years. "I couldn't care less if they don't get along."

Hartley, Sanders' husband and others asked for their signatures to be removed from the recall petition. That didn't happen. Hartley then called for Romine to resign for running a recall under false pretenses.

That didn't happen either. Instead, Romine and Zapata, who could not be reached for comment, asked for and got the blessing of the association's lawyer, Eric Appleton of Bush Ross, to approve the petition and name Warren Helms, who had served as president three other times, as president again.

Appleton and property manager William Sanborn said the board instructed them not to talk to the Times. Helms could not be reached.

Garcia could have taken the recall to arbitration but did not because it would just cost the neighborhood more money in legal fees. The money should go to improving the community, she says.

With mildewed common area walls, weedy yards and unkempt retention ponds where peacocks wander, she and others say, that shouldn't be hard.

"When we first moved in, everything was operating beautifully," Sanders says. "To me, the board has not been doing what they are supposed to do."

In the past, no one challenged Romine and Zapata for their posts. This November, Hartley says, a slate of candidates will step forward to try to unseat what he calls the "fiefdom."