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Dissension rattles long-calm Belleair Shore

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Cold blow the winds of strife in fair Belleair Shore. Where once untainted salt breezes bore no more lament than the quiet clink of martini glasses, now rancor and complaint rend the air.

These are not happy times for the 70-some souls who call Belleair Shore "our town."

It went down this way: The reform-minded mayor, George Jirotka, encouraged three neighbors to run for the five-member board of commissioners. "I wanted to get the abrasiveness off of the commission," he explained later.

The three candidates filled out applications to run and gave them to Jirotka. He chose not to tell the other commissioners that there would be opposition to the three incumbents. So the incumbents didn't file the necessary papers, assuming they would be without opposition and therefore reappointed to their jobs.

After the filing deadline was past, Jirotka announced at a meeting last month that William Krohn, Jerry Prescott and Bob Schmidt were no longer on the commission. That's when everybody hired a lawyer and went to court.

Some readers might be scratching their heads and wondering: What's to argue? Common sense would say if the incumbents didn't comply with the town charter, they shouldn't be complaining now.

This is Belleair Shore, however, so a little history is necessary.

Belleair Shore is less a town than a state of mind. There is no town hall, no official repository of public records, no public employees. It is a neighborhood, really, of about 52 properties, at least six of which are worth more than $1-million. No home is valued at less than $400,000.

There hasn't been a town election in Belleair Shore for at least 20 years. That's because no one files to run. Come election time, the commissioners all nod, wink and appoint someone to the seat, usually the incumbent. It is a gentlemen's agreement.

Jirotka wasn't acting like one of the gentlemen.

Prescott went to court and was granted a temporary injunction to prevent Jirotka from swearing in the winning candidates _ Carra Best, Jane Rutenberg and Madge Wagner _ until Dec. 19. Meanwhile, the existing commission planned to impeach Jirotka.

So Jirotka went to court to ask a judge to stop a special meeting at which the impeachment could take place. The judge, Richard Luce, said the meeting could be held, but he voiced some concerns about the situation.

"I've heard some allegations that have troubled me on both sides, allegations of ambush, allegations that officials are serving their own purposes," Luce said.

In the courtroom cheering on Jirotka's foes was former Mayor Bob Clayton. Clayton was convicted last year of misdemeanor battery and criminal mischief for flashing a gold "Mayor" badge and forcing a family to leave the Belleair Shore beach. Under Clayton, the town fought with its neighbor, Belleair Beach, which has legal access to the beach behind Belleair Shore homes. Under Clayton, the town tried to make beach use difficult for its neighbor. Belleair Shore tried to prosecute two women for drinking coffee on the beach, and it put up iron gates on beach access property to make parking more difficult.

Under Clayton's rule, the high tide marked a boundary that anyone who had the temerity to stroll onto Belleair Shore's beach dared not cross. Even Belleair Beach residents had to carry their dogs to the water without a paw touching the sand.

Jirotka replaced Clayton as mayor and has tried to improve relations with Belleair Beach and to polish his town's image. Unfortunately, he made a mistake.

Jirotka should have challenged his opponents openly and let the voters make the final decision on which path the town will follow. He momentarily detoured from the high road. Now, we are left with unanswered questions.

Will the commission impeach Jirotka before his supporters can take their seats on the board and save him? Will Clayton regain enough power to influence the town? Does a majority of the townsfolk even care who survives this political tempest in a teapot?

Belleair Shore seems to exist as an incorporated town for one purpose: to keep people off its beach. So only one question is really relevant.

Why is there a Belleair Shore?