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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Hillsborough parks director retiring

Hillsborough County's parks, recreation and conservation director is stepping down.

Mark Thornton, who presided over the department for eight years during a time marked by declining tax revenues, said it's time to try something in the private sector after 31 years as a public parks director.

"I'm ready to try new challenges," Thornton said. 

Parks directors are usually one of the happy, high-public profile jobs in local government. Thornton's tenure was high-profile, alright, largely because he was forced to oversee at-times unpopular changes to after-school and summer recreation programs in order to save costs. He turned over maintenance of parks to private companies and recreation leagues and oversaw widespread staffing cutbacks as his department's budget shrank from a high of $54 million to $36 million.

"He’s been the director during a period of extreme change," said Sharon Subudan, deputy county administrator. "But he always maintained a can-do attitude."

Thornton said he joked to Subudan that if he had a chance to do it over again knowing what the economic collapse would do to county government and his part of it, he's not sure he would. …

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Coming Tuesday, the Bob and Pam and Dick and Sandy and (another) Bob and Bill show

Tampa's six living mayors, from left, Bob Buckhorn, Pam Iorio, Dick Greco, Sandy Freedman, Bob Martinez and Bill Poe gathered for lunch at Malio's downtown and took this photo in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in March. They return to the park Tuesday to mark the start of construction on a key piece of the Riverwalk.


Tampa's six living mayors, from left, Bob Buckhorn, Pam Iorio, Dick Greco, Sandy Freedman, Bob Martinez and Bill Poe gathered for lunch at Malio's downtown and took this photo in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in March. They return to the park Tuesday to mark the start of construction on a key piece of the Riverwalk.

The next section of Tampa's Riverwalk is arguably the one that is most sorely needed, most technically challenging and most expensive to build.

So to mark the start of construction of this long-desired project, Tampa officials plan to assemble the municipal government equivalent of a rock supergroup.

"I've got all six mayors coming, so send the photogs," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said this week. "It's going to be pretty cool."

Buckhorn often says six Tampa mayors have spent 40 years working to create the Riverwalk, so he has invited his living predecessors — Bill Poe, Bob Martinez, Sandy Freedman, Dick Greco and Pam Iorio — to join him at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park for the project's official launch.

The section to be built next will go over 1,460 feet of the Hillsborough River, running parallel to the eastern bank of the river, and under the Kennedy Boulevard bridge. It must be built over water because the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk Hotel and other properties along that section are built all the way to the seawall. It will have four shaded areas 35 feet wide and 35 to 75 feet long. Once it is open, the Riverwalk will cover an unbroken 1.8 miles. …

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Immigrants rights activists to protest at Marco Rubio’s Tampa office

The Tampa Dream Defenders plan to protest in support of comprehensive immigration reform for all 11 million undocumented immigrants at 6:30 p.m. Friday outside of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s Tampa office.

The demonstration will culminate a week of “legalization for all” activities in Tampa and a handful of other cities, including Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Salt Lake City.

Rubio’s office is at 3802 Spectrum Blvd., north of Fowler Avenue and just west of the main entrance to the University of South Florida.

For more information, check the group’s Facebook page.

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More of Alex Duensing's handmade campaign signs

Alex Duensing's cheerful campaign signs can be described in words - and I tried in today's story - but pictures are really best. Here are a few pulled from the candidate's Facebook page, where you can find even more. Duensing is running for Jeff Danner's District 8 seat on the City Council, along with four other candidates: Amy Foster, Steve Galvin, Robert Davis and William Hurley.


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Three Tampa City Council members heading to Cuba this week

There’s no Tampa City Council meeting this week — typically, the council doesn't meet on the fifth Thursday of a month — and that’s probably a good thing, since nearly half the council will be out of the country.

Council members Yvonne Yolie Capin, Harry Cohen and Mary Mulhern joined a 30-member delegation from the Greater Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce that is scheduled to head to Cuba today and return on Sunday night. It will be the third trip for Mulhern, the first for Capin and Cohen.

“For me, I really am hoping to come back more educated and knowing a lot more than I do now,” Cohen said shortly before leaving for the airport. “I’m trying to keep a very open mind and really want to just soak up and learn as much as I possibly can.”

The council members’ travel is not being paid for by public money, and City Council attorney Martin Shelby issued a memo Tuesday saying that the trip would not violate Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine law. …

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Developer appeals County Commission apartment decision

After nearly a year of street protests, petitions and a seemingly endless list of complaints, Safety Harbor activists rejoiced when the Pinellas County Commission struck down plans for a large, upscale apartment complex.

But the Richman Group, the West Palm Beach developers behind the project, filed an appeal for an administrative hearing Tuesday that essentially said: We're down, but we're not out.

"What my client wanted to do was build a nice residential community," said Ed Armstrong of Clearwater, attorney for the Richman Group. "You have an awful lot of policy makers and land use professionals that assessed this case, and they also came to the conclusion this change was appropriate."

Read more here.

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Soft jabs thrown in St. Petersburg mayor's race

The jabs are starting in the St. Petersburg mayor’s race.

 After Mayor Bill Foster boasted on Twitter Saturday about swimming at Jennie Hall Pool, challenger Rick Kriseman threw a punch.

 “Waiting to swim at Jennie Hall Pool. Great dedication of our historic pool,” Foster posted on Twitter.

In response, Kriseman’s camp issued a news release, saying “Foster once proposed closing Jennie Hall Pool as part of a plan to plug a $14 million deficit.”

Kriseman’s team called Foster’s event a campaign stunt. Foster eventually backed down from the plan after residents complained.

“The mayor is praising St. Petersburg’s city pools on the campaign trail after putting them on the chopping block and deeming them noncritical, said campain manager Cesar Fernandez. "The people of St. Petersburg can see right through this.”

Former City Council member Kathleen Ford is also in the race. She didn’t tweet about the Saturday event or issue a news release.

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Tampa? New York Times says new book makes it sound like ‘hell on earth’

Carriage Pointe was built on what once was a tropical fish farm in Gibsonton. Builders intended to develop nearly 1,000 homes, but Lennar Corp. ended up building 382 homes before the market collapsed in 2007. By 2009, the subdivision had a foreclosure rate greater than 50 percent.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times (2009)

Carriage Pointe was built on what once was a tropical fish farm in Gibsonton. Builders intended to develop nearly 1,000 homes, but Lennar Corp. ended up building 382 homes before the market collapsed in 2007. By 2009, the subdivision had a foreclosure rate greater than 50 percent.

Tampa made the second paragraph of a New York Times book review this week, but not in a good way.

In a review of George Packer’s new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, the newspaper said Tampa "had problems before the foreclosure crisis and seems like hell on earth now."

In an 18-page chapter titled “Tampa,” Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, puts together a description that reads like a prosecutor’s indictment. Tampa actually appears in a series of chapters that touch on the foreclosure crisis, the defeat of light rail in Hillsborough County, the rise of the tea party, the difficulty of climbing out of poverty and the spectacle of the Republican National Convention.

In the book's first chapter on the place, Packer writes that "Tampa would continue to grow, and by growing, become great" and, moreover, that "it grew in order to grow." Here are two excerpts from the chapter: …

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Racism claims lead to staffing shakeup at East Lake Fire Rescue

East Lake Fire Rescue stripped one lieutenant of his rank and reinstated another in an effort to address allegations of racial harassment and fend off looming arbitration.

The decisions are the department's latest attempt to regain footing after its leaders have accused each other of inappropriate texts, racial harassment and mismanagement.

The East Lake Fire Commission, the elected board that oversees the department, decided Tuesday to reverse an April decision to demote Bill Figueredo from lieutenant to driver and drop his pay $5,000 after he was accused of giving a Nazi salute and using a Jewish slur. He denies both accusations.

he move to reinstate Figueredo helps the department avoid arbitration that could have cost $10,000 or more, according to department attorney Andy Salzman.

Also, last week the department demoted James Finley, one of Figueredo's accusers, from lieutenant to driver after an investigation found that several other firefighters accused him of racist and sexist text messages and harassing language. …

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St. Petersburg mayor wants to appoint blogger Peter Schorsch to city board


Peter Schorsch is mostly known as a local blogger and political consultant, but now he wants to be a thing of beauty.

Next week, Mayor Bill Foster will ask the City Council to appoint Schorsch to the City Beautiful Commission, which promotes the beautification of the Sunshine City.

Among other things, the adjunct commission suggests ordinances to the council and maintains the Gizella Kopsick Arboretum.

 Schorsch, the president of the Crescent Lake Neighborhood Association, said one of his goals is to preserve and enhance the aesthetic value of the city. He says he also participates in countless efforts to clean the city.

“I spend some of my free time literally mowing the lawns of elderly neighbors who can't do it for themselves and picking up the snipe signs illegally placed in right-of-ways,” Schorsch said. “I hope I can contribute to making St. Pete a great place to live and work.”

Council chair Karl Nurse nominated Schorsch to fill the remainder of a three-year term expiring at the end of the year.


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Tampa, Hillsborough and state officials on tap for town hall meeting

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, City Council member Lisa Montelione, Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman and state Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, are on the panel for what Emerge Tampa Bay describes as an “unfiltered” conversation about issues affecting the region.

The Q-and-A session is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday (with registration at 5:30 p.m.) at the University of Tampa’s Vaughn Center. Topics are expected to include transportation, innovation and community engagement. Tampa Bay Times editorial writer John Hill will moderate.

The cost, which includes appetizers and drinks, is $25 for members of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, $30 in advance for non-members and $35 for non-members at the door. To register, go to or contact Ashley Ehrman at (813) 276-9488 or [email protected]

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Dunedin to get new fire station, but will pay more

The good news: Dunedin is finally getting a replacement firehouse.

The bad news: Even after rejecting original contractor bids because they came in a half-million dollars too high, the new station will still cost the city roughly $400,000 more than architects originally estimated.

Even so, city engineer Tom Burke says what will ultimately be a $1.95 million contract with CRS Building Corp. of St. Petersburg is a good price for market conditions.

Designers, sent back to the drawing board by city commissioners, swapped out a few building materials in an effort to lower the price.

But City Manager Rob DiSpirito said the raised cost couldn't be avoided because the cost of construction has gone up in the 18 or so months since architects drew up blueprints. Other factors that he said increased the price: reluctance of contractors to lower prices in this improving economy, cost differences between Dunedin and the region where the original estimate was made, and additions to the project, such as an upgraded vehicle exhaust system.

Read more here.

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Shawn Harrison looking for rematch against state Rep. Mark Danish

Shawn Harrison

Times files

Shawn Harrison


The last time that Shawn Harrison and state Rep. Mark Danish ran against each other was nearly seven months ago.

Harrison, a Republican, was the incumbent, with good name recognition and strong fund-raising. But Danish, a middle school science teacher, rode a big Democratic wave and won by 1 percent.

Now Harrison has filed papers to run again in Tampa's state House District 63. If he gets his rematch, the election would take place 17 months from now, and both men would expect the contest to be different.

Full story here.


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Eric Johnson, ever the finalist, passed over again for top job in Pasco government

Hillsborough County director of strategic planning Eric Johnson must be wondering if he will forever be the bridesmaid.

Johnson was passed over again Tuesday for the top job with a local government, this time for administrator of Pasco County. Commissioners voted instead to hire outsider Tomas "Tommy" Gonzalez, the city manager of Irving, Texas. From our account, it appears the choice among commissioners was between Gonzalez and current chief assistant county administrator Michele Baker.

Johnson was one of four finalists for the job. He is a former assistant county administrator and its one-time budget chief, but got shifted to his current role when current County Administrator Mike Merrill took over in Hillsborough in December 2012 and installed his own management team, sans Johnson.

In the past few years, Johnson has been a finalist for top local government posts a few times, including in Sarasota and Seminole counties, as well as Pasco. It appears the headhunters like his resume, but the elected folks making the hiring decision keep passing him over. 

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Beckner holds community office hours near downtown Tampa

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner will hold his monthly community office hours at the Robert W. Saunders Sr. Public Library Wednesday.

Residents who want to discuss a concern with the commissioner may show up without an appointment and be seen on a first-come, first-served basis from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. The library is at 1505 N Nebraska Ave.

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