An apparent misunderstanding between Gulfport officials and the city’s Presbyterian Church was identified and resolved within 24 hours.
Nicole Spence, treasurer of the recently closed church and a member of the board committee appointed by the Tampa Bay Presbytery to oversee the installation, informed City Manager Jim O’Reilly via email that afternoon. of May 12 that the orange Little Free Food pantry on church property had been removed by city employees without church approval.
Characterizing the incident as “both trespassing and theft”, Spence asked O’Reilly to tell him who had authorized the removal of the pantry.
“It is the intention of the church and CA session that the pantry remain in place until the final disposition of the property which has not yet taken place,” she wrote. . “No one in authority has requested that the pantry be removed. I request that the pantry be returned to its rightful place as soon as possible.
O’Reilly responded to Spence within minutes, according to timestamps on the emails he provided to the Gabber.
“I apologize for any misunderstanding of what was communicated to me by a resident regarding the small pantry,” he wrote. “It will be returned to the original space first thing Friday morning.”
O’Reilly confirmed to The Gabber on May 13 that at 7:15 a.m. Friday morning the pantry was back in its rightful place. He says he was “misinformed by a resident” that his withdrawal had been requested, but he did not identify this resident.
Spence’s final response to O’Reilly reflected his concerns about how the situation was initially handled and the possibility that it could happen to someone else.
“I’m not sure that acting on the ‘advice’ of a random resident allowing city employees to go onto private property and steal property has become an acceptable thing in Gulfport” , she wrote. “In the future, if there are any questions or concerns about the church facility, please direct them to me.”
The church, which has been around for decades, stopped holding services from April 24 due to declining attendance. Future plans for the property have yet to be determined.
Spence told The Gabber that one of the reasons she acted so quickly was to alleviate concerns expressed on social media that a religious organization had asked the city government to remove the structure using staff and taxpayer-funded equipment.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said.
The small pantry sees a lot of traffic, she said, and items are taken fairly quickly by residents in need whenever it is restocked. Church officials plan to continue to do so until the final disposition of the property is determined.
Management at Sunflower School, one of two schools that lease property from the church, said it would continue to operate the pantry if it were successful in its bid to purchase the property, noted Spencer. Otherwise, she told The Gabber, another organization has requested the pantry. Students from both schools are currently helping to stock the pantry.
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