Best Of 2008

Artist rendering of the Rays waterfront ballpark

It was a classic win-win: spend about $300 million in taxes and other government money (and have the Rays contribute $150 million in rent over 30 years) to build a new waterfront ballpark that had a huge sail for a roof and would be hotter than blue blazes in the Tampa Bay summer. Part of the deal would bulldoze Tropicana Field and sell it off to a developer. It was a win for the city, which would keep the Rays in town, and a win for the team, which would continue to grab huge taxpayer subsidies and earmark them for major-league baseball salaries. The losers, unfortunately, were the taxpayers, who rose up against the plan. They didn’t like the location. They didn’t like the size of the park. They didn’t like the price tag. They didn’t like the fact that the plan was secretly discussed with city officials for nearly two years. They probably didn’t even like the fact that the team was suddenly in first place and a contender for the first time. And like Troy Percival trying to steal home, the plan was soon tagged out.

The miles-long receipt tucked under your windshield wiper. The neatly printed text detailing your violation and its cost. The sinking feeling resulting from an imminent loss of money. In Ybor City, before the meters were removed, this costly inconvenience was inevitable for local folks who spent any time there. Ybor’s ruthlessly vigilant meter minders were known for their shady tactics, from lying in wait near almost-expired meters, to keeping tabs on a car long enough to issue two tickets, one before midnight and one after. Not really the best way to lure repeat or even potential visitors. Removing the meters rid us of parking stress that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Jim Smith

By late 2007, things had gotten so cozy around the Pinellas County Commission that the elected property appraiser, Jim Smith, was able to gin up enough “outrage” at how county workers had trimmed some trees and disturbed some land he owned as an excuse to force the county to purchase the property. Smith’s asking price? $225,000 for the vacant parcel — four times higher than his office had valued the land. Did county leaders negotiate him down or ask public questions about the deal? Of course not. They trusted their county manager and county attorney (who had received permission to represent both the buyer and the seller in the deal). Once the sale became public knowledge, however, fingers got pointed and heads rolled. County Manager Steve Spratt resigned; County Attorney Susan Churuti was fired; and Smith and County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan decided not to run for another term. As for some of the other commissioners who voted to approve the sale without any comment or question, they face voters in November.

“Sir” Robert Irvine came to St. Petersburg with a cooking resume and a new Food Network show. His plans for the ’Burg were big: two new signature restaurants, Ooze and Schmooze, that he hoped would put the city on the culinary map. But there was a dark side: Friends said he was rude and abusive to chefs; he kept asking for more financing for his venture when his earlier financiers thought he had enough funding; and then he suddenly canceled his condo lease and became scarce around these parts. Key elements of his resume were lies, and the Times feature writer Montgomery got on the story. He proved up to the task, not only digging into every corner of Irvine’s past, but writing it with a narrative flair. The story doesn’t read like a dry investigation; it is the portrait of a man coming unraveled as, in the end, Irvine concedes (at least in part) that he is not the person he portrayed himself as.

So many entries in this category, but this year’s winner is someone who took part in an actual circle jerk. Fox 13 General Manager Robert W. Linger was arrested at a sleazy porno spot in Tampa’s dodgy Drew Park when he and a number of other men encircled undercover cops and masturbated. Linger was charged with lewd and lascivious behavior and exposing his sex organs and was replaced as GM at the station; he did, however, stay on as a vice president with the Fox Network, where jerks are always welcome. We don’t want to know what the undercover cops were doing inside that stroke ring, but we wonder if they got off a call for backup before the (alleged) circle-jerkers got off a … well, just got off. “Officers down! Officers down!!”

In the last year, St. Pete residents have witnessed gang warfare in Childs Park, the Christmas shootings at Baywalk, a rash of armed robberies of taxicabs, and most recently, a brazen rape and robbery at one of Central Avenue’s upscale restaurants. But Mayor Rick Baker and Police Chief Chuck Harmon continue their Kevin-Bacon-in-Animal House school of crowd control mantra: “Crime is down. All is well. Remain calm.” What more has to happen before city leaders admit there’s a problem?

Brian Blair

It’s an election year, so you expect to see boneheaded stunts designed to pander to the left or right, depending on a pol’s leanings. But Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair wins the early derby bets by taking on the “Day of Silence” in schools, a commemoration meant to bring attention to violence against students and curb name-calling and bullying. This year’s was held in honor of a California eighth-grader who was murdered because of his sexual orientation. But for Blair, taking his cues from the extremist preacher Donald Wildmon, the “Day of Silence” was actually a “Day of Sin and Homosexual Recruiting” that was to be shunned and denigrated. Blair e-mailed that “no group of citizens should be given a government sanction to promote their social and sexual agenda upon the rest of us and especially, our children. Considering the fact that the same school system does not want to allow just one Minute of Silence in the classroom for God, this is preposterous.” Preposterous is exactly the word that comes to mind.

Jennifer Leigh

The Gayle Sierens era at Ch. 8 has to end some time — not that we’re in a rush — and we hope that, instead of doing a national talent search, station management looks in house and goes with Jennifer Leigh. We were dismayed to find out that Jen is no longer anchoring weekends, but she still does ace reporting out of Polk County during the week. I guess we can understand that a gal might like weekends off. Even though she’s no longer doing regular duty behind the desk, we’d love to see her there someday — on weekdays. Leigh has an inviting way on camera, relaxed and comfortable with a wry sense of humor to go along with natural news cred. She’s Florida-bred, and has been with Ch. 8 since 1993. And we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that she’s … s-s-s-smokin’.

The Bucs had already drafted likely future Hall of Famers Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp — two legends among college football fans in Florida — when the 1997 draft brought Florida State running back Warrick Dunn to town. A little guy (5-foot-9-inches, 180 pounds.) with a huge heart (his personal story and charity work are jaw-dropping), Dunn served five years with the Bucs before joining the Atlanta Falcons as a free agent in 2002. Bad timing, Warrick, as the Bucs won the Big One the following season. Conventional wisdom dictated that Dunn would never be a durable running back in the NFL, but a quick check of the stats find that he’s missed only 10 games in his 11 year career, and has racked up 2,256 carries for 9,461 yards, 43 touchdowns and a 4.2 yards-per-carry rushing average in his career. According to Wikipedia, “As of November 22, 2007, Dunn is one of only 3 running backs 5’11” and under to rush for 10,000 yards.” Provided he stays healthy, Dunn will make an excellent counterpunch to last year’s breakout back Ernest Graham. Even if the football doesn’t work out (though we think it will), Warrick Dunn is a great addition to the Tampa Bay community — and that counts for more than a few touchdowns.

In a day and age of truly insipid daytime television programming and 24-hour cable blather, Fountain’s midday news talk show, Your Turn, doesn’t pander. She takes on tough subjects — sex offender bans, Muslim extremism, transgender rights, sexism and all brands and angles of politics — and makes them come alive. Even taking calls from her viewers, a guaranteed way to attract crazy rants, plays into her strength as an interviewer. Fountain often turns the viewers’ questions back on them before having her wide array of guests chime in. She’s tough but never arrogant, insistent but never incessant. Think there’s any chance that CNN would hire her to bitch-slap some journalistic sense into Nancy Grace? Disclosure time: A couple of CL editors, Wayne Garcia and David Warner, have appeared on Fountain’s show.