C.O.N.A power grab takes members by surprise

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What the heck is going on at the Council of Neighborhoods Associations of South Pinellas (CONA)? 

After the herculean efforts of outgoing President, Kurt Donley, to draw attention and resources to some of St. Pete’s most under-represented neighborhoods, and then handpicking his successor, Lisa Wheeler-Brown – Donley’s application to have his latest organizing effort, The Gulfport Marina District Neighborhood Association, approved as a new CONA member was rejected with Wheeler-Brown cast the deciding vote in a split decision at the CONA Executive Committee meeting last week.

According to Codes Committee Chair, Robert Thompson, last week’s vote was in violation of CONA’s by-laws, which call for a unanimous vote of the executive committee to reject a neighborhood’s membership.

Today, Donley issued a statement to all neighborhood association presidents outlining a series of by-law violations apparently intended to prevent him from serving CONA in the capacity of Public Safety Chair.

In his statement, he said, “Today there was supposed to be a make-up election. Apparently people were afraid I might win a fair election, so my neighborhood was retroactively denied membership (long after the check was cashed).”

Several powerful association members from the Kenwood, Lakewood and Riviera Bay neighborhoods have, in the past, objected to successful initiatives instituted during Donley’s tenure as president, all of which had the tacit approval of the organization.

Among those initiatives was support for Neighborhood Partnership Grants, civil citations (for non-violent youthful offenders) and economic development and public safety in Midtown.

Reached by phone, Donley said that the initiatives had rankled some of the membership and that he had stepped aside to make way for Wheeler-Brown so that the organization could continue to function.

In response to Donley’s e-mail, past president and longtime CONA member, Will Michaels made an impassioned plea for reevaluation at tonight’s meeting, “Non-approval of [Donley’s] application effectively disenfranchises Kurt Donley who is a candidate for the Public Safety Committee Chair … refusal to approve the application both denies the Gulfport Association the benefit of belonging to CONA and has the consequence of denying Kurt the opportunity to stand for election as a CONA committee chair.”

He then made the following motion, “I move that the Board ask the Executive Committee to reconsider their action on this membership, and to postpone the [general] election until next month.”

The motion was rejected by Wheeler-Brown on the grounds that it was moot and had already been decided by the executive committee.

Robert Thompson, carrying a set of by-laws in his hand, stepped to the microphone and addressed the council imploring the organization to adhere to and apply the rules fairly.

Wheeler-Brown again insisted that the issue was moot and asked Thompson to be seated. After a brief, heated exchange Thompson left the meeting.

Reached later for comment Thompson said, “This is not just about Kurt. This is about smoky, backroom deals. We should follow the rules and the by-laws and we did not. [Wheeler-Brown] shouldn’t try to bend the rules to erase [Donley] from the organization.”

CONA’s new president and board are off to an inauspicious start. The organization has a long history of dysfunction and in-fighting, with approximately 55 of the 100+ eligible neighborhoods actively participating. 

If the current shenanigans are any indication of the direction the new president and board are taking, CONA can expect to see its membership plummet in the coming year.

Wheeler-Brown announced at the meeting tonight that she is appointing a committee to review and revise the current by-laws.