This week, The Sarasota Observer welcomes back the area’s seasonal residents with a recap of the summer’s most significant news. Following are excerpts of top news stories, presented in chronological order, from May through October.
+ Bird nests shutter access
After two snowy plover nests were destroyed at Siesta Key’s beach access No. 7, the county closed the access point to foot traffic May 14.
Snowy plovers are a threatened bird species that nests directly on the sand.
Volunteers kept watch over other nests in the same location. After the eggs had hatched and the young birds had grown enough, the beach-access point was re-opened Sept. 3.
Afterward, the county announced its plans to create additional parking spaces at beach access No. 7 that will also include additional protection for snowy plovers.
A more permanent barrier may be put in place, so beachgoers can’t move it.
+ Police Chief Abbott resigns
In a surprise announcement from City Hall, City Manager Bob Bartotta said Police Chief Peter Abbott had resigned May 18.
“We came to a mutual agreement,” said Bartolotta. “Expectations haven’t been met.”
The city manager discussed those expectations in a letter to the City Commission.
“When Chief Abbott was restored to his current position six months ago, it was with the expectation that major changes would be made in the way his department was being led,” Bartolotta wrote. “The chief had the opportunity to re-energize and re-invigorate the department. Unfortunately, this has not occurred.”
Abbott was placed on a four-month leave after a June 26 incident, in which a police officer was caught on camera kicking a handcuffed suspect. Abbott’s subsequent approval of a payment to that suspect without consulting Bartolotta or the city attorney led to his suspension.
Capt. Mikel Hollaway was named interim chief at the time, and more than three months later, he was awarded the permanent position, making him the first minority police chief in Sarasota.
+ Orchestra objects to fees
The Sarasota Orchestra appealed to city commissioners to reduce its rent at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
The chairwoman of the orchestra board, Marsha Panuche, said rental rates and fees have climbed 94% in the past three years.
“Virtually no nonprofit can withstand that,” she said.
Panuche and Orchestra President and CEO Joe McKenna appeared before the City Commission to seek relief from the Van Wezel rates, as well as begin a discussion on how the city can help fund the arts, which is the area’s fifth-largest industry.
“The arts and cultural industry has the potential to reinvigorate the economy,” Panuche said.
City Manager Bob Bartolotta said the reason for the increased rates comes from his desire to keep all taxpayers from subsidizing the performance-arts hall.
“It’s an attempt to move costs from the taxpayer to the user,” he said.
City taxpayers had been footing the bill for the Van Wezel, even though only 10% of the hall’s customers live within the city limits.
Bartolotta felt it was only fair for the users who live outside the city to help pay for its upkeep.
Nevertheless, he told Panuche that he is willing to work on options, including a possible 10% fee reduction for heavy users of the hall, such as the Orchestra.
+ Pizza van must move
A pizza shop’s van that had been perennially parked at Siesta Key Beach grew into a controversy involving condo residents, the sheriff’s office and a county commissioner.
Solorzano Bros. Pizzeria had legally parked its van along Beach Road in front of the beach. Condo residents across the street had complained for months.
Commissioner Nora Patterson asked the county’s zoning department to see if there was any provision in the county code that prevented the van from being parked along the beach every day.
County staff found a provision that classified the van as an advertisement and prohibited the van from parking there.
The pizza shops owners said they’d abide by the rules.
+ Downtown roundabout construction begins
Construction on the controversial Five Points roundabout began July 5. The intersection re-opened Aug. 11, which was 23 days ahead of schedule.
Some ancillary work, such as landscaping, will continue until just before Thanksgiving.
+ Parking meters to come
The city’s back-and-forth over paid parking continued, when, July 21, city commissioners all but assured that parking meters would be appearing downtown in 2011.
The Palm Avenue parking garage is scheduled to open in December, and city leaders fear that if more desired on-street parking is free and the less desirable garage spaces cost money, nobody will park in the $12.5 million garage.
Later this month, commissioners are expected to consider a plan to place parking meters on the streets surrounding the Palm Avenue garage and the county’s Ringling Boulevard garage at the judicial center.
+ No wrongdoing in talks
Although it recognized a high-level county employee had personal contact with a company bidding on a spring-training baseball contract, an audit conducted by the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court’s Office found that nothing improper had occurred in the bidding process.
The report stated: “We did not find any instances of … non-compliance with the Sarasota County procurement code or procurement manual.”
County Administrator Jim Ley requested the audit after a Sarasota Observer story in April revealed that Larry Arnold, the county’s director of community services, had personal contacts within two companies bidding on two separate projects related to spring-training baseball.
A lawsuit filed by two citizens groups was heard in both district court and appellate court. The groups claimed the county skirted Florida’s Sunshine Laws during its baseball negotiations.
Both courts ruled in the county’s favor.
Construction of the Baltimore Orioles spring-training home continues on the site of the old Ed Smith Stadium. The Orioles are scheduled to play their first game in Sarasota March 1, 2011.
+ Police headquarters opens
The Sarasota Police Department’s new $46 million headquarters opened to the public for the first time Aug. 3.
The six-floor building at 2099 Adams Lane will increase productivity and boost morale, according to officers.
At 201,000 square feet, it’s more than three times the size of the former police department building on Ringling Boulevard.
The old building was pieced together in stages beginning in 1959. There was no designed layout. What was originally a second-floor jail had to be converted into office space, and a third and fourth floor were then placed on top of that.
One of the main goals of the new headquarters was to place together the divisions that work closely together. In the old building, two divisions that worked together could have been on different floors.
The demolition of the Ringling Boulevard building is expected to take place in the spring.
+ City explores feeding ban
After the city of Orlando won a court case that affirmed its right to ban daily feedings in one of its parks, the Downtown Improvement District asked city attorney Robert Fournier to review that case and offer an opinion on whether a similar ordinance in Sarasota was feasible.
The sponsor of most of Orlando’s feedings is Food Not Bombs, which also conducts homeless feedings in Selby Five Points Park.
Many downtown residents believe the feedings keep homeless people in the park.
“What we essentially have is a homeless park,” said downtown resident Ron McCullough. “We have a homeless park that drives people from downtown.”
The city of Sarasota requires a permit if more than 75 people gather in a public place. Fournier said the appeals court ruling could allow the city to lower that number if the City Commission requested it.
Many downtown residents and business owners clearly want something done.
“The biggest problem is behavioral — profanity, drinking, drug use,” said John Anderson, owner of Mozaic restaurant. “(Problem homeless) are going to leave if there’s more family activity in the park.”
Fournier believes it would be difficult to write an effective law outlawing homeless feedings.
“To create an ordinance, there has to be a documented problem from the feedings,” said Fournier. “Then you have to prove that the ordinance would cure that problem.”
+ Patterson wins primary election
The winners from the Aug. 24 primary election included: County Commissioner Nora Patterson, who defeated fellow Siesta Key resident Mark Smith, and school board candidates Carol Todd and Jane Goodwin.
+ Government changes
Commissioner Terry Turner appeared before the Charter Review Committee, asking members to consider changes to Sarasota’s council-manager form of government.
He proposed new language in the charter that made it clearer that the city manager was the sole administrator in the city. Another change would be the city manager would hire and manage the city attorney and city auditor and clerk. The commission currently appoints both of those positions, and many see that as creating a checks and balances to the city manager.
Florida League of Cities figures show about 60% of the state’s municipalities have all employees report to their city manager.
Turner’s proposal also calls for strict prohibitions against commissioners directing staff to perform any duties and for the mayor to be directly elected and serve two-year terms but have less power.
Upon hearing Turner’s suggestions, Mayor Kelly Kirschner went before the Charter Review Committee at its next meeting in September and said he supported leaving city government as is. City Manager Bob Bartolotta said he also liked things the way they are now.
+ One-day pickup begins
Beginning Sept. 1, the city changed its trash-collection schedule from two pickups per week to just one.
The city will save about $700,000 with the reduced service.
The solid-waste department conducted a study that showed only 64% of residents put their trash carts out on both collection days. And of those customers, only 2% had a full cart on both days.
+ Taxing district proposed
Former Vice Mayor Ken Shelin proposed to the City Commission that a private non-profit group take over Selby Five Points Park.
He cited the conversion of New York’s Bryant Park, which was known in the early 1970s as “Needle Park,” because it was overrun with drug dealers, prostitutes and homeless.
In 1980, a group of prominent New Yorkers founded a private corporation to take control of the park. The city still owned it, but the nonprofit group paid for its operation and maintenance, and the park transformed into a bustling park with family attractions and Broadway performances.
Shelin envisions a private takeover of Selby Five Points Park having the same effect. He said a new taxing district could be created, which will collect money for the park’s upkeep.
“The problem has always been that the city has an easy time convincing people to make capital improvements, but it has trouble continuing the maintenance,” he said.
+ Staub will retire
In a surprise announcement Sept. 15, County Commissioner Shannon Staub told her constituents and fellow commissioners that she would be retiring in December.
“In 1996, I began one of the most rewarding times of my life, when I was elected county commissioner,” she said. “Now, 14 years later, I find that it is time to end this journey, and (I) will retire at the end of the year.”
Because Staub’s term does not expire until 2012, the governor is accepting applications for a replacement. He will then appoint someone to serve out the term.
+ Tobacco-free parks idea
A statewide campaign to eliminate tobacco use in parks is gaining traction in Sarasota.
The city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection board has asked the City Commission to study the effectiveness of creating tobacco-free zones in children’s areas of city parks.
The move came after a lengthy debate over personal rights and catching violators.
“I’m not sure how it can be enforced, but I think we should start somewhere,” said Elsie Souza, PREP board member.
Jennifer Robertson, of the Florida Department of Health, appeared before the PREP board Sept. 16 to push the statewide campaign of creating tobacco-free parks.
The parks should be tobacco-free, not smoke-free, she said, because tobacco companies are creating products, such as nicotine-laced lollipops, that the state also does not want used in Florida’s parks.
“(The goal) is to increase the number of tobacco-free parks by 10% by 2012,” Robertson said.
Sarasota County adopted a beach-smoking ban three years ago, and so far in 2010 it has issued 21 citations for smoking on the beach. The city created its own beach-smoking ban last year.
+ Board advises city to sell
When city commissioners were undecided over whether to sell or lease the retail space attached to the Palm Avenue parking garage, they sought an opinion from the Community Redevelopment Agency Advisory Board.
The CRAAB board had a unanimous recommendation: sell, sell, sell.
“I would want to relieve the city staff of being leasing agent and (management), so I would wholeheartedly support a sale,” said John Harshman, a CRAAB member and commercial real-estate broker.
If the city leased the space for the current downtown market rate of $16 to $18 per square foot, it would take up to 23 years for the city to break even.
Commissioners could not come to a consensus last month, when city staff informed them that negotiations to lease the 12,000 square feet of retail space on the garage’s ground floor have gone nowhere.
City management was recommending selling that space, so it wouldn’t have to deal with the headache of leasing downtown retail space that is difficult for professional Realtors to lease right now.
“We’re not in the business of managing retail property,” said City Manager Bob Bartolotta.
+ Dog-tethering law changed
A month after it adopted an ordinance that made it illegal to tie up animals outside under certain circumstances, county commissioners want to change one of those circumstances, saying they did not intend for the law to go so far.
The commission asked county staff to review the so-called “dog-tethering law,” because the way it was written required pet owners to be outside with their pets if they were chained outside.
The ordinance also listed the following circumstances in which a dog or other animal can be tethered outside:
• The animal is not outside during extreme heat, cold or storms.
• The animal has access to food and water.
• The animal is at least 6 months old.
• The tether is connected to the animal by a leather or nylon collar or body harness.
• The tether is five times the animal’s body length.
• The tether does not weigh more than one-eighth of the animal’s weight.
• The tether is free of tangles.
+ Judge sides with Dent
Saying he didn’t see any way an elections concession could be retracted once it had been given in writing, Judge George Richards ruled against former Charter Review Board candidate Kathy Bolam.
Bolam sued Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent because she said Dent improperly influenced her to concede the District 3 primary race.
The judge disagreed.
“(There was) no pressure, coercion or undue influence,” Richards said after hearing three hours of testimony Oct. 28.
After all the ballots were counted Aug. 24, Bolam trailed her opponent, Adam Miller, by 151 votes. Because that difference was less than 0.5%, state law calls for a mandatory recount unless a candidate concedes in writing.
Dent called Bolam the morning after the election and informed her of those recount rules.
Bolam asked her what that entailed, and Dent told her that the recount would begin Friday morning and would last into Saturday.
Dent also said the chances of picking up more than 10 or 15 votes were slim.
+ Veterans cemetery delayed
The Sarasota National Cemetery wants to get its construction schedule back on track.
Following the disqualification of four bidders, another bidder’s protest and then a counter-protest by yet another bidder, work on the veterans cemetery’s second phase has been delayed for about a year-and-a-half.
The Veterans Administration required that the winner of the construction contract for the Sarasota National Cemetery be a small business owned by a service-disabled veteran.
That company would be responsible for excavation, grading, landscaping, irrigation, electrical work and installation of pre-placed crypts on the State Road 72 property.
Two bidders weren’t classified as small businesses. Two more bidders weren’t technically acceptable. And protests and counter protests were filed over two other bids.
Because of all the problems, the VA decided to start the bidding process over.
Although construction of the cemetery’s second phase is delayed, Cemetery Director Wes Jones said that doesn’t mean the facility is not being used.
“About 2,450 people have been interred,” he said. “We just don’t have the new buildings up.”
Jones said after a winning contractor is selected, construction could begin by December or January and be completed 18 months later.
When each of the 10 phases is complete, which will not happen for decades, 100 of the property’s 295 acres will be suitable for burial.
The cemetery is designed to accept veteran interments for up to 300 years.