Endangered Incumbents

It's hunting season on Treasure Island's elected officials

click to enlarge KEEPING THE SPIRIT: Surfer Ilia Shuvalov walks past - houses and a high-rise at the south end of Treasure - Island. - Bud Lee
Bud Lee
KEEPING THE SPIRIT: Surfer Ilia Shuvalov walks past houses and a high-rise at the south end of Treasure Island.

When a beachside government runs amok and its leaders begin to operate outside the will of the people, what can the little man do?Well, history repeatedly tells us there is nothing the little man can do. There is too much money involved. Folks just seem to roll over, throw up their hands, order another margarita and say, "Woe is me," while the fat cats and their building machines begin lining pockets and pouring concrete over paradise.

The inhabitants of this beachy Pinellas barrier island are proving, however, there is a much simpler solution: throw the bums out.

Throw all the bums out.

Taking cue from the antics of what resident activists call a "rogue government," a grassroots campaign is moving solidly and purposefully through City Hall, aimed at taking out all the highest officials in Treasure Island (pop: 7,450). It is conceivable that by spring, the mayor and the entire city commission, the city manager, the city attorney and the head of the powerful planning and zoning board will be gone — most of them victims of an unrelentless and righteous citizen hunt.

"What you are seeing are city leaders who are completely out of touch with their constituents. Bad leaders who got in because of voter apathy," says citizen leader Ray Green. "This is a whack on the side of the head to the citizens. If you want responsible government, you have to be responsible for who you elect!"

Soon to be gone is Mayor Leon Atkinson.

When "Da Mayor's" dreams of tall hotels and crowded beaches were dashed — first by a citizen initiative referendum and again by a successful citizen lawsuit filed against the city — he announced he would not be a candidate in the March city election. The white-bearded mayor also announced his retirement as the Treasure Island rooftop Santa Claus because people were driving by and cursing at him. Atkinson has publicly vowed to spend his retirement "fighting the Sunshine Law," a Florida statute that he brags of breaking.

"How can you not break it? It's a stupid law," Atkinson says, unabashedly. He has an interesting, if awkward, rationale to back up his statement. He also does not like television cameras at public meetings.

Sunshine Law violations, however, are not even touched on in the report just finished by the Florida Commission on Ethics and sent to Attorney General Charlie Crist last week. Rather, state ethics investigators were more concerned with a "conflict of interest" charge levied against the mayor by a constituent who felt Atkinson's votes regarding the city land development regulations (LDRs) were also raising the value of the Mayor's own property.

The ethics report only states the facts. Conclusions and charges, if applicable, will come later.

Once the pro-development symbol for the type of government most of the residents did not want, the lame duck Atkinson is no longer a target of reform-minded residents: "Leon's gone. We don't have to worry about him," says Attorney Ken Weiss. "Butch Ellsworth? That's another story. He's still in office another couple years."

The same ethics commission has sent another report on Treasure Island District 2 Commissioner Irving "Butch" Ellsworth to the attorney general. Citizens charged Ellsworth with conflict of interest for voting on LDR issues that would significantly increase the size of his employer's wallet. Ellsworth works for Sid and Agnes Rice, largest landholders in Treasure Island, owners of more than 10 percent of the city's commercial-zoned property. No one in the city benefits more from LDR height and density increases than the Rice Family.

State ethics investigator Wayne Maxwell discovered a 1998 letter in Treasure Island city files in which an ethics commission staff attorney explicitly says Ellsworth is "required to abstain from voting" on issues which involve "gain/loss to one's employer," or risk violating the state's voting conflicts law.

In Maxwell's report, obtained recently by the Weekly Planet, Ellsworth says he contacted the ethics commission again, prior to a controversial vote last October, in which Treasure Island commissioners rushed to pass an LDR ordinance favoring developers before residents had a chance to vote on the same issue in a November referendum. The commission refused to issue another opinion on the matter since Ellsworth was under investigation.

Despite the presence of the 1998 opinion, Ellsworth found daylight in the state ethics commission's refusal to write another opinion: "I feel this is a very important vote that I must vote on," he told investigator Maxwell. "I cannot recuse myself or abstain from voting just because I feel there might be a conflict of interest ... it is my duty and obligation to vote unless somebody's (sic) tell me in writing that they do think there will be a problem."

Ellsworth's "yes" vote helped the controversial ordinance pass 3-2; it was filled with developer-favored height and density tools. Two weeks later, the largest turnout in Treasure Island election history approved an initiative requiring all future LDR height and density changes to go before voters. But that could not change the ordinance passed by the commission.

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