Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sunday March 9, 2014 A Casual Conversation with CONA President Lisa Wheeler-Brown

On the campaign trail candidate Kriseman placed a strong emphasis on neighborhoods.

Under his predecessor Mayor Bill Foster the budget process had seriously eroded neighborhood support. By the end of Foster’s administration a lack of financial and staff support coupled with the city’s general disinterest in input from the neighborhoods had left St. Petersburg’s five decade old Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) at a very low point.

CONA has a new president, Wildwood Heights Neighborhood Association President, Lisa Wheeler-Brown. We sat down early in the morning at The Dome in downtown St. Pete for a casual conversation.

As of this writing CONA has about 24 member neighborhood associations, down from nearly 60 at one point. Lisa pointed out that former members are coming back and some new neighborhoods have joined CONA or are considering joining.

Lisa is an engaging woman, wife, mother and grandmother. She has been active in her Wildwood Heights neighborhood association for a number of years, and she has been active in CONA for the last couple of years.

I asked Lisa, "How did you find yourself in the CONA leadership position?"

Lisa responded, “When I saw the direction CONA was taking and it seemed everyone was looking for a change, I felt I was a strong leader and I could help lead CONA in the direction they wanted to go.”

“What direction do you think that is,” I asked?

“Getting back to their mission,” she replied, “advocating for the neighborhoods, and strengthening neighborhoods.

I asked Lisa to compare her experience with CONA’s relationship with the Foster administration and her expectations for the Kriseman administration.

“With the Foster administration we didn't really have a relationship,” she said. "With the Kriseman administration we have already have a relationship and I expect it to grow and we can work together side by side, and it’s already happening."

"What’s happening,” I asked.

"We will be meeting with the Mayor quarterly, the first meeting is on March 6th and in that meeting we will discuss our common goals and how we can work together," Lisa replied.

"Mayor Kriseman realizes how important neighborhoods are, and along with Neighborhood Affairs Director Mike Dove and his staff we are looking to strengthen that relationship by working together."

What are your plans for CONA as you get started?” I asked.

“We needed to set our priorities, and one of the things we have been talking about is Codes.” “I have had a meeting with Todd Yost (The Kriseman administration’s new Codes Director) and I am really excited.” “He is really going to get it done and the neighborhoods should be excited,” Lisa said. “This is a start to where you can tell the Kriseman administration cares about the neighborhoods.”

One of Lisa’s biggest problems will be to first reinvigorate St. Pete neighborhood associations and then convince them to become part of CONA.

"For many years CONA has been viewed as a “white” or perhaps even racist organization, but from my experience with CONA over the last two to three years I think that has been a misread by some of our community leaders," Lisa said.

Lisa’s election as CONA president should send a clear signal that everyone in St. Pete is welcome in CONA. That fact and the Kriseman administrations' announced focus on South St. Pete combined to together should help encourage all neighborhoods to step up.

To that end Lisa indicated that CONA and the Kriseman administration are going to be working on a mini grant project this budget year while planning the neighborhood support budget for 2015.

The mini grant program will provide small grants of up to nearly $500 for neighborhoods to use on organizational and planning meetings and small projects. The program will be administered from Mike Dove's Neighborhood Affairs department.

Our conversation turned to the Police Department and the selection of a new police chief.

Lisa is no stranger to the crime problems in St. Petersburg; she lost her oldest son to the violence.

Lisa turned even more serious during this part of our discussion, she said, “I feel the Police Department needs and is ready for new leadership.”

“Has there been any indication CONA will have a seat at the table in the selection process?" I asked.

Lisa’s response, “No, not yet, no, not at all.”

I followed up, “are you going to make that request?”

“We have a new CONA Public Safety Chair and he’s just getting onboard, so we’ll have to wait and see.”

Lisa went on, “This is a new year for CONA. We have been dealing with some inside issues, when a new leader comes in there will be a new direction and some adjustments in philosophy that have to be made, so that’s what we have been dealing with for now.”

When I circled back to question about the police chief selection process, Lisa agreed it would be a good idea to have some input, but indicated that is a conversation she has yet to have with the Kriseman administration.

Lisa Wheeler-Brown is an engaging individual, with an infectious smile. It would be very difficult not to like her right off the bat.

Beneath that warm exterior is a strong heart and mind, a real love for all of St. Pete and a genuine desire to serve her community.

Rick Kriseman is serious about South St. Pete. I know because he looked me straight in the eye and told me that BEFORE he ever announced he was running for Mayor.

With Lisa Wheeler-Brown the Mayor has an ally that may very well help him accomplish what his three predecessors could not, a serious move toward a seamless St. Petersburg.

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