Wednesday, July 18, 2018
News Roundup

The 10 biggest stories in Tampa Bay and Florida in 2017

In addition to hurricanes and the Seminole Heights serial killer, it was a busy year in Tampa Bay as national news events manifested themselves locally and across the state. The #MeToo movement forced a powerful Tampa Bay state senator from office. Shock over white nationalists in Charlottesville, VA. galvanized protests against Richard Spencer’s speech at the University of Florida and helped remove Confederate monuments throughout Florida. While much remained the same in Tampa Bay — St. Petersburg’s mayor won reelection, sink holes continued to haunt Pasco, Tampa Electric suffered another slag accident at its Apollo Beach plant — there was major change, too. Ringling Bros. packed up its tent for good and Ybor City became a likelier home for the Tampa Bay Rays. Here again are the top stories of 2017, as selected by the editors at the Tampa Bay Times.

Misconduct probe ends Latvala’s career

The nationwide movement to expose powerful men making unwanted sexual advances to women in the workplace reached the Capitol in November with allegations that Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, repeatedly groped and made crude remarks to Senate staff member Rachel Perrin Rogers over five years.

The Senate hired a retired judge to investigate. The subsequent report was a bombshell.

It found probable cause that four of five of Rogers’ complaints were true but more damaging, the report demanded a probe of claims by a second woman, a former lobbyist and long-time friend of Latvala’s who said he sought sexual favors in return for favorable votes on her legislative agenda. That’s a quid pro quo that could be a crime.

The 66-year-old Latvala, who had mounted a candidacy for governor, resigned Dec. 20, still denying the allegations.

In leaving his 500,000 Tampa Bay constituents with no voice in the Senate at the start of the New Year, Latvala became the third senator to vacate his seat in 2017, joining Democrat Jeff Clemens of Atlantis and Republican Frank Artiles of Miami.

Gov. Rick Scott is expected to call a special election so that voters in the Pinellas-Pasco district can choose a replacement.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Tampa Bay Times editors pick top stories of 2017

Big Bend accident kills five

On June 29, six workers at Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach were covered in slag, a lava-like byproduct of burning coal that can reach temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees. Two of the men, senior plant operator Michael McCort and contract employee Christopher Irvin, died at the scene. Three more died at the hospital: Antonio Navarrete, Frank Lee Jones and Amando Perez. A Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that Tampa Electric knew its workers were performing a dangerous maintenance job; a near-identical procedure caused injuries at another Tampa Electric plant in 1997. In fact, workers and managers had created safety guidelines that would have prevented the 2017 accident, but the company abandoned them sometime before 2015.

Kriseman wins second term

After the most expensive and nastiest campaign in Sunshine City history, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman fended off a challenge from former mayor Rick Baker in an election that shattered previous turnout records. Kriseman, a Democrat, successfully linked Baker, a Republican, with President Donald Trump in a city where Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans. Baker, who served from 2001-10, was also hurt by stating he didn’t know the extent to which human activity contributed to climate change and by not participating in the Pride parade. The two candidates raised more than $3 million, much of it spent of negative advertising. Another first? Former President Barack Obama weighed in, endorsing Kriseman just before the August primary and shifting the race’s momentum.

Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board gets eviscerated

Inefficient. No oversight. No safeguards to protect taxpayers.

That’s how the Pinellas County Inspector General Hector Collazo Jr. described the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board.

The report came after a Tampa Bay Times investigation exposed how the agency operated, how its leaders and staff conducted themselves behind closed doors and how some officials treated consumers and contractors unfairly. The agency failed to protect homeowners from unlicensed contractors.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Collazo launched investigations. In November, the Pinellas County legislative delegation unanimously passed a proposed state law to abolish the board’s independence and move it under county government. It awaits a vote by state lawmakers, who are the only ones who can reshape the agency.

New stadium site for Rays?

Take me out to the ballgame, take me out to Ybor? After years of speculation, Hillsborough County officials finally laid out where they would put a ballpark if the Tampa Bay Rays decide to leave St. Petersburg for Tampa. Commissioner Ken Hagan in October unveiled 14 acres of warehouses and lots on the outskirts of Ybor City near the Channel District that he hopes could one day host the team. Rays principle owner Stuart Sternberg said the team is genuinely excited about the prospect of playing games there.

Now comes the hard part: Figuring out how to pay for it. Sternberg speculated the team could put $150 million toward new digs. The county says that’s probably not enough for a facility that will likely cost $800 million. The hype around Ybor baseball will remain just that if the two sides can’t come to an agreement before January 2019 – the expiration date of the three-year pact with St. Petersburg that allowed the Rays to search for a new home away from Tropicana Field.

Confederate monument removed

National fervor over Confederate memorials reached Tampa during the summer. At first, it appeared Memoria en Aeterna was destined to remain in the city’s downtown after Hillsborough County commissioners voted to keep the 106-year-old Confederate statue outside the old county courthouse. But amid fierce backlash from civil rights groups, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the business community and even local professional sports teams, commissioners changed their minds and decided to move the statue to a small family cemetery in Brandon. However, there was a catch: Those who wanted the statue gone had to raise half the money needed to move it, about $140,000. The community response was swift; they reached the goal in a day. Hours after the fundraising blitz, on the evening of Aug. 17, the monument was encased in wooden barriers. The statue — a marble monument to the Confederate soldier erected for 50th anniversary of southern succession in the heyday of Jim Crow and dedicated with a racially charged speech — has since been disassembled.

The end of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

At its height in the 1960s, the circus animals rolled in wheeled cages through St. Petersbug, drawing gaggles of gawkers.

But the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, coined "The Greatest Show on Earth," came to a nostalgic final bow this year amid declining attendance and protests over animal treatment.

The news came as a blow to the Tampa Bay area, where the International Independent Showmen’s Museum stands in Riverview to preserve the area’s history as a once home base for circus performers. Ringling’s parent company also has local ties. Feld Entertainment is based in Ellenton.

But not everyone was as sorry to see the show wrap.

Animal welfare groups have long protested Ringling’s confinement of animals, particularly the show’s trademark elephants, which the circus retired last year. Even with attempts to modernize the performance, some point to the attention-grabbing movement as a catalyst to Ringling’s demise.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran storms Tally

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran seemed to be the force behind everything that moved in the Capitol during his first year overseeing the 120-member House. A controversial education bill that further boosts charter schools? Corcoran’s handiwork. A full-frontal assault on self-rule powers for cities and counties? All Corcoran. A campaign against spending by key Rick Scott agencies such as Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida? Corcoran again. It says something about Corcoran’s reach that even his sworn enemies ascribe seemingly unrelated events to the 52-year-old. As rumors of sexual misconduct swirled about Florida senators in early November, Sen. Jack Latvala told reporters, sans evidence, that Corcoran was conducting a campaign to "tear down the Senate." Nearly two months later, Latvala is being forced from office, the Senate is in disarray, and the lower chamber, long known for its rowdy fraternity house atmosphere, has avoided any hint of scandal. In his final year as Speaker, Corcoran faces a weakened Senate that should put up even less resistance to his hard right legislative agenda.

Richard Spencer comes to UF

The nation was still assessing the bloodshed at a far-right rally in Charlottesville this summer when University of Florida students learned that white nationalist Richard Spencer planned to visit Gainesville next.

Students, alumni and activists urged UF officials to turn Spencer away. Administrators rejected Spencer’s rental request, citing safety reasons and denouncing his racist rhetoric. Spencer mounted a legal battle, and with a potential federal lawsuit looming, UF said the rejection was never meant to be permanent. A date was set.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in preparations began, reflecting the tense, high-profile nature of campus free speech flareups. President Kent Fuchs said Spencer had taken UF for ransom. Gov. Scott declared a state of emergency.

On Oct. 19, barricades, deputies and protesters swarmed campus. Spencer faced a crowd of students united in a deafening chant: "Go home, Spencer!"

Pasco sinkhole east several homes

Creaks, cracks and crashes pierced a quiet July weekday morning in one Land O’Lakes neighborhood.

A parked boat went first. Then one house. Then half of another. All swallowed up by a hungry Earth.

It’s a familiar story to long-time residents of the Tampa Bay area. But not in decades had Pasco County seen one so large.

In a matter of hours, a sinkhole more than 200 feet wide had opened in Lake Padgett Estates, a community east of Land O’Lakes Boulevard and north of State Road 54. It consumed two houses, forced about a dozen other families to temporarily evacuate and left seven houses condemned. And slashed property values.

"It’s just something we’re all supposed to live with in Florida," Linda Hutchinson, who lives about a mile from the gaping pit, said shortly after it opened up. "But you never get used to the ground caving in on you."

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Kathleen McGrory, Charlie Frago, Mark Puente, Steve Contorno, Kathryn Varn, Michael Van Sickler, Claire McNeill and Josh Solomon contributed to this story.

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