Pinellas 2012: The year that was

If you feel neglected because the folks in Tampa got so much attention when the Republicans and their convention came to town, you shouldn't. It was a big, busy and sometimes ridiculous year all over Tampa Bay.

St. Petersburg, after all, was the chosen home of the mysterious macaque now known Cornelius, this area's most beloved vagabond. Pinellas also was host to the Great Fluoride Debate. Who knew that a mineral could actually determine elections in the 21st Century? Plus, our shoreline may soon replace its aging Inverted Pyramid with an other-planet-worthy Lens. Then again, maybe not.

Amid all that, a new school superintendent was hired, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office was caught in a marijuana scandal and a Tropical Storm named Debby made a mess of our fall.

Still feeling neglected? We thought not.

The RNC

For one week in August, the eyes of the world turned to Tampa for the Republican National Convention. Politically, the convention was a mixed bag for the GOP, and it had a way of confounding expectations. Hurricane Isaac threatened but didn't actually hit. The city braced itself for mobs of protesters, most of whom stayed home. Fenced off and isolated, some restaurants set the table for conventioneers who never materialized. Police suited up as if to go to war, but ended up delivering boxed lunches to demonstrators. Then Clint Eastwood did that thing with the chair. The economic impact — estimated at about $154 million before the Aug. 27-30 event — is still being calculated. But regional boosters say Tampa Bay's image got a big lift from the publicity.

The Pier

It was almost a year ago that a California-hatched design emerged as the winner in an international competition for St. Petersburg's new Pier. Predictably, the avant-garde concept of dual bridges sweeping to a tiara-like finish on Tampa Bay elicited a combination of admiration and jeers. Some proclaimed it just the image for a city emerging from somnolence. Others deemed it ridiculous and embarked on a quest to save the quirky, crumbling inverted triangle built in 1973. Some like-minded thinkers specifically took aim at the "gigantic free form" being shoved on St. Petersburg's residents by uninformed, West Coast outsiders. The antipathy would spawn two petition drives and a lawsuit, but also prompt an as-seen-on-TV pitchman to throw his lot behind the $50 million project known as the Lens. The old Pier is scheduled to be torn down this coming year unless the effort to save it prevails.

The Monkey

The monkey that evaded capture for nearly four years is a mystery no more.

Since 2009, the rhesus macaque has been spotted throughout Tampa Bay, recently settling down in a St. Petersburg neighborhood near Lake Maggiore. He ate handouts, napped on patios, looked through windows. Neighbors and monkey learned to get along.

That changed Oct. 24, when the monkey bit a woman outside her home. For three weeks, wildlife officials and rescuer Vernon Yates, who has chased the macaque for years, tried to trap him. A cage was brought in. Plans to use another monkey as bait were discussed. In the end, though, two darts ended the monkey's freedom. After a 30-day quarantine, the monkey, now named Cornelius, has found a new home at Dade City's Wild Things, where a female macaque will soon join him in his cage.

Fluoride

You mean you couldn't taste the difference? Last December, after a series of public meetings where Tea Party activists claimed that fluoride was poison, Pinellas County stopped adding the mineral to its drinking water. The decision affected about 700,000 people and made Pinellas the largest Florida county to reject fluoridation. But soon that cultural benchmark will belong to someone else. Weeks after the Nov. 6 election, newly installed pro-fluoride commissioners voted to restore fluoridation, which will start on March 1.

The grow house scandal

Just in time for a hotly contested Pinellas County Sheriff's race, allegations surfaced in the winter and spring of 2012 that Sheriff's Office narcotics investigators had trespassed and lied to obtain search warrants for marijuana grow houses. In one case, a detective even disguised himself in a Progress Energy uniform while trying to gather evidence.

The accusations were driven by a band of criminal-defense lawyers calling themselves the "Scent of Justice Gang," and gathered steam over months of reporting on detectives' abuses by the Tampa Bay Times. The scandal forced prosecutors to drop more than a dozen drug cases. Three deputies eventually resigned and one was fired. The former investigators then promptly became the subject of a criminal investigation themselves, launched by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

The voting problems

Florida's reputation for electoral humiliation survived another election cycle. But this year it wasn't the tight margins or voting technology that made the state a national laughingstock. It was the waiting.

Though many people voted by mail, a decision by the Republican-controlled state Legislature to shorten early voting hours left thousands of people stuck in long lines on Election Day. In Miami-Dade, some voters waited seven hours. In Pinellas County, thousands of voters received robocalls on Election Day mistakenly telling them they had until "tomorrow" to vote.

Then the nation waited as Florida counted its ballots. And waited until no one cared. Four days after President Obama was re-elected, the state awarded its 29 inconsequential electoral points to him.

The school

Key players in the tale of Florida's newly created 12th state university included a power broker senator and a chancellor who became known for his statue of Darth Vader.

In the end, Florida Polytechnic University won the right to break away from the University of South Florida to stand on its own as an independent school based in Lakeland. Critics say the college became independent mostly because of the political ambition of then Sen. J.D. Alexander. Its backers say the university will fill a critical Florida need — producing more graduates in science, technology, engineering and math.

The storm

She was slow, fat and mean. By the time Tropical Storm Debby waddled north, she had dumped 15 inches of rain in parts of Tampa Bay. She spit out rooftop-peeling tornadoes and devoured beaches. She overflowed rivers until they breached and flooded homes and saturated the ground until it opened. She poured so much on the Suncoast Parkway that it was submerged for a week. She caused millions in damage that will take years to repair.

Just imagine if she'd been a hurricane.

The school chief

The Pinellas County School Board is tired of feeling like a C student — with spotty test scores, an achievement gap and an overall feeling that the luster has worn off of what once was a premier Florida school system.

Enter Mike Grego, the new superintendent hired in August. He has pledged to bring Pinellas' performance to the top of the state, if not the nation. In early going, he has won some points with teachers by offering changes to a controversial new grading system. But in school terms, Grego is barely into his first grading period. This next year will be his first real test.

Bobby Thompson caught

In April, U.S. marshals in Oregon captured the man known as Bobby Thompson after a two-year, cross-country manhunt. Solving the mystery of his true identity would take a little longer. The man who created the U.S. Navy Veterans Association charity scam from a rundown Ybor City duplex is currently jailed in Ohio awaiting trial on fraud, money laundering, and identity theft charges. In October came news that "Thompson" is actually John Donald Cody, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former military intelligence officer. Cody had been on an FBI wanted list, charged with fraud and espionage, since 1987.

Other 2012 highlights

Domestic registries: Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Gulfport created domestic registries this year, allowing unmarried couples, gay or straight, certain rights that come only with marriage. Pinellas is considering a county-wide registry.

Tampa Bay Rays stadium: Developer Darryl LeClair pitched a new stadium for Carillon, which landed with a thud because neither the Tampa Bay Rays nor the City of St. Petersburg will end their standoff on stadium locations.

Pollution threatens Florida's springs: After decades of neglect, Florida's once gin-clear springs face a crisis just as the funding to protect them erodes. The water is polluted by nitrates, being overrun by toxic algae blooms and growing increasingly salty.

Special needs children die: The worst that can happen to Hillsborough County students happened twice, and both times to disabled children. One girl drowned in a pond behind her middle school, and the other stopped breathing on a bus returning from her elementary school.

Rob Turner: Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner sent pornographic emails to his human resources director, a woman he once dated and then fired as the news was breaking. In a surprise to almost no one, he lost in the subsequent Republican primary.

Pinellas 2012: The year that was 12/29/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 29, 2012 11:34pm]

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