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 Administrative Council committee assigned by the Presbytery of Tampa Bay to oversee the facility, informed city manager Jim O’Reilly by email the afternoon of May 12 that the orange Little Free Food Pantry on the church’s property had been removed by City workers without church approval.
Characterizing the incident as “both trespassing and a theft,” Spence asked O’Reilly to tell her who authorized the removal of the pantry.
“The intention of the church Session and the AC is that the pantry remain in place until the final disposition of the property which has not occurred yet,” she wrote. “No one with authority has requested that the pantry be removed. I am requesting that the pantry be returned to its rightful place ASAP.”
O’Reilly responded to Spence within minutes, according to the time stamps on the emails he provided the Gabber.
“I apologize for any misunderstanding on what was communicated to me by a resident in regards to the little pantry,” he wrote. “It will be returned to original space first thing Friday morning.”
O’Reilly confirmed to the Gabber May 13 that as of 7:15 Friday morning, the pantry was back in its rightful place. He said he was “misinformed by a resident” that its removal had been requested, but he did not identify that resident.
Spence’s final reply to O’Reilly reflected her concerns about the way the situation was initially handled and the possibility that it could happen to someone else.
“I’m not sure when acting on ‘tips’ from a random resident allowed city workers to go on private property and steal belongings became an acceptable thing in Gulfport,” she wrote. “Moving forward, if there are any questions or concerns about the church facility, please direct them to me.”
The church, which has been in existence for decades, ceased conducting services as of April 24 because of the decline in attendees. Future plans for the property have not yet been determined.
Spence told The Gabber that one reason 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 taxpayer-funded personnel and equipment.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said.
The small pantry sees plenty of traffic, she said, and items are taken by needy residents fairly quickly each time it is replenished. Church officials plan to continue doing that until the property’s final disposition is determined.
The leadership of the Sunflower School, one of two schools which rent the church property, has made it known that they will continue to operate the pantry if they are successful in their attempt to purchase the property, Spence noted. If not, she told The Gabber, another organization has requested the pantry. Both schools’ students currently participate in keeping the pantry stocked.