Fighting Over Treasure

'The voice of the people has been heard," said Ray Green. "A monumental mistake," is how Naples land-planning attorney Tim Ferguson described it.Green and Ferguson were talking about a Nov. 5 referendum approved by 66 percent of Treasure Island voters in a record turnout for the Pinellas County city.

With 1,700 signatures, the Concerned Citizens of Treasure Island placed on the ballot a referendum that would require 51 percent of registered city voters to approve new height or density changes to the municipal development code, one of the strongest environmental protection measures in Florida.

Pending the outcome of lawsuits, city officials might have to let voters decide whether to ease height and density regulations so developers can build 10-story hotels along Gulf Boulevard.

The issue had sharply divided the community. (See "Shore Subject" at www.weeklyplanet.com/ 2002-10-16/cover .html.)

Business leaders, with whom Mayor Leon Atkinson sided, maintained that current regulations chase off tourists and modern resort builders. Many residents sought to preserve the "small town ambiance" advertised in the city's "vision statement."

Two local businessmen funded a $100,000-plus media campaign, including free hot dogs, barbecue and airplane banners above Sunset Beach, which begged residents to vote against limiting tall buildings. The opposing side responded with an equally impressive grassroots campaign that employed telephone calls, door-to-door canvassing and sign waving.

But two weeks before the vote, in an action somewhere between outright defiance and political suicide, the city commission passed the new regulations in an attempt to render the referendum moot.

"They feared the referendum would pass, so they rushed their ordinance into law first," says opposition leader Mike Daughtry. "It is disgusting to me and a hell of a lot of others, the way this commission treated the people. Who the hell do they think they are?"

Both sides declared war and took the battle to the courthouse.

Daughtry led one group of citizens in seeking an injunction to enjoin the commission from issuing any building permits under the new ordinance. Local businessman Larry Hoffman personally sued six petition signers for misrepresenting the issue to voters. The cases are pending.

"The people who voted had no idea what they were voting about," said Ferguson, who represents several big Treasure Island property owners. "This was an animal that took on a life of its own. This will have to be decided in the courts where more rational minds will preside."

The irrational minds of Treasure Island are still at it. Referendum proponents are preparing petitions to overturn the controversial ordinance as well as to recall the mayor along with commissioners Barbara Blush and Butch Ellsworth.

Given the public anger, the trio of city politicians may be out of office by year's end.

"We are looking for qualified candidates who will listen to and represent the voice of the people and not the desires of the few," says Green.

Atkinson is not fazed: "It is time to get back to the business of running the city," said the mayor. "The issue is out of our hands." —Peter B. Gallagher

Grave Dancers

Inside the Moon Under Water on Election Night, House District 52 candidate Chris Eaton's political career was perhaps laid to rest.You could have seen him there, even bought him a pint, just before St. Petersburg voters entombed him in a grave marked "Democratic Party."

Then you could have walked across Straub Park and into the Vinoy. There you would have seen local Republican bigwigs strapping on their grave-dancing shoes as Charlie Crist entered the ballroom, with a harem of attractive young women, as Florida's first Republican attorney general.

"Let's have some music," said Crist. "Let's have a party."

Indeed, it was a wonderful night for the GOP. The only Pinellas County Republican not to win was school board candidate Tiffany Todd, the 24-year-old daughter of county commission Chair Barbara Sheen Todd. Wholly unqualified for the post, Todd was liked less by fellow Republicans than she was by derisive editorial writers.

"In a room like this, Tiffany wouldn't even go around and meet people," said St. Petersburg City Council member John Bryan. "She'd just twiddle her thumbs in the corner."

Hearing talk of the young Todd, fellow City Council member Bill Foster rolled his eyes. Foster encouraged Weekly Planet to attend a tourism board meeting the next day. "Barbara is going to be in rare form," said Foster, referring to Tiffany's mother, who chairs the panel.

Bryan laughed. "You should come in wearing a Mary Brown sticker," he told Foster. Even after raising a record $75,428, Todd lost to Brown, 67, the first African-American elected to the school board.

But not all unqualified candidates had to concede to rivals.

Dogged by the media and Democrats for being an empty suit resting on few legal laurels, Crist still triumphed over state Sen. Buddy Dyer in the Republican's third statewide race. Among Dyer's criticisms was that Crist, a St. Petersburg High School graduate, needed three attempts to pass the Florida Bar exam.

"Politics is a contact sport and you've got to have thick skin," Crist said. "Voters saw through the negative ads."

Later in the evening, state Rep. Frank Farkas, who easily beat Eaton in what many thought would be a closer race, arrived at the Vinoy to congratulate Crist. —Trevor Aaronson

Feeling Green?

Tired of your leaders bowing and scraping before corporate America for a few pence?Have they compromised to the point that you can't tell them from the opposition anymore?

When you proclaim that your group represents the common folk, do people laugh in your face?

You must be a Democrat.

If so, a grateful nation thanks you. Although your political party is fast becoming irrelevant, it still furnishes an impressive volume of comedic material for media pundits and late-night television joke writers.

In the coming months, Democrats will savage each other as only they can after a debacle.

Was it Bill McBride's stubbornness or the raucous manner in which the surviving Wellstones chose to celebrate their dearly departed that started the Republican landslide? (A more pertinent question for dour Minnesotans might be: Has anybody there ever been to an Irish wake?)

Cheer up, donkeys.

There's another political organization with leaders who don't just preach grassroots democracy but enthusiastically practice it, as your party once did. It's called the Green Party.

The Greens got slaughtered on Election Day too. But they did have 33 winners across the country, including a state House candidate in Maine who beat a Democrat by a two-to-one margin. Ouch.

For 2002, more than 60 Greens were elected to public office in the United States, the party's best showing yet. Unlike the Democrats, they're at least headed in the right direction.

"Progressive candidates not only can win, but do win, when they are true to their values," said Green Party Co-Chair Ben Manski.

True to their colors though they were, Greens were defeated in four Florida elections Nov. 5. Closest to home, Kurt Gratzol, a state House candidate from Pinellas, picked up 23 percent of the vote against GOP incumbent John Carassas. Antony Stefan polled 24 percent in a Sarasota County Charter Review Board race.

The lone Green holding public office in the Sunshine State remains Cocoa Beach Deputy Mayor Eric Fricker.

Hey, it's a start. Even the vanquished Greens have this consolation: They only lost an election, not their soul. —Francis X. Gilpin

we'd Like to Thank the Academy...

We don't enter this line of work for the awards, but it is encouraging when someone tells us we're doing a good job.Occasionally, we put our best stuff out there for someone else to decide how we're doing — someone who doesn't have a personal stake in our coverage and who knows what the standards are or should be.

Recently, The Florida Press Club awarded the Weekly Planet staff first place in the Excellence in Weekly Periodical category.

Staff writer Rochelle Renford received third place for Excellence in Minority News Reporting. The Association of Food Journalists gave our own former Food Editor Bonnie Boots a first place national award for Restaurant Criticism for columns she wrote for the Planet.

Since we're always telling you what they did wrong, we should tell you that The Tampa Tribune did well in the Florida Press Club awards — especially the design department, headed up by Pat Mitchell, who guided the paper's nifty redesign last year.

Shane Blatt and Chris Smith both took first place awards, and Larry Sullivan got a second place in page design. David Kadlubowski won first place and Colin Hackley second place for their photographs and Carol Cleere received a first place for her photo illustration. Curtis Ross took a second place in Criticism Writing, Cloe Cabrera received an honorable mention in Minority News Reporting, Candace Samolinski snagged a first place in Crime News Writing and Joe Henderson a second place in Sports Column Writing. —Weekly Planet staff report


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