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Choices, changes, chad

Doomsayers said 2000 would wallow in chaos and confusion from the start, but who knew it would turn out like this?

It's hard to believe now, but there once was news that did not revolve around Vote-a-matics, butterfly ballots and the familial status of chads. Really.

In the year 2000 here in Pinellas County, leaders came and went. Baseball teams threatened to go but stayed. The little guy backhanded the corporate giant. And Elvis the iguana returned safely home.

As we prepare to embark on year 1 A.C. _ After Chad _ it seems appropriate to glance back at some of the year's most noteworthy events.

To paraphrase David Coverdale, lead singer of that most excellent of hair bands Whitesnake, we don't know where we're going, but we sure know where we've been. And we've got the newsprint to prove it.

So here we go again . . .

The Y2K that wasn't

Doomsayers were a bit disappointed this year. The fall of modern civilization did not commence promptly at midnight as 1999 gave way to 2000. Instead, it waited until Nov. 7.

In the intervening months, e-mail continued to work properly (just ask the folks at Clearwater City Hall), ATMs went on dispensing cash and VCRs continued to tape each and every scintillating episode of Survivor.

But nothing lasts forever, and Pinellas had its share of turnover at the top this year. Largo Mayor Tom Feaster was the first to go, deciding he would rather spend more time with his family than run for office again.

Feaster's political career began as a city commissioner in 1974. In 1979, he was elected mayor, but he left the political scene three years later. He returned in 1993 when he was elected mayor again, and he ran unopposed two more times before bowing out in March.

Clearwater City Manager Mike Roberto made a hasty exit in July after city commissioners forced him to resign and then softened the blow with a $166,000 severance package. Roberto's departure was effective July 21, but his fate was virtually sealed 10 days earlier when voters soundly rejected an ambitious $300-million plan to remake the face of downtown Clearwater, a plan he vigorously supported.

"I truly do not have an idea what we are going to do now," Roberto said after 58 percent of the voters vetoed the plan, which included a new concert amphitheater, a multiplex movie theater, 1,200 new apartments and condominiums, public parking garages and up to 300,000 square feet of new retail space.

Roberto, who was city manager for three years, has spent the past five months shaping up with a personal trainer, playing tennis and spending time with his family. In January, he plans to begin working for Wade-Trim Inc., a national consulting and engineering firm.

Bill Atteberry's departure as mayor of Belleair Beach was a bit rockier. After holding the position for 11 years, Atteberry resigned in September after pleading guilty to a felony money laundering charge.

Rounding out the farewells was Fred Marquis, believed to be the state's longest-serving county administrator. After 30 years working for Pinellas County, nearly 22 of them at its helm, Marquis called it quits Sept. 30.

Voters hastened his departure when they agreed last year to create single-member districts for County Commission members, who had always been elected at-large.

Marquis worried the system would divide the traditionally cordial board.

Co-workers and longtime friends threw a huge tropical-themed bash for Marquis, and commissioners surprised him by naming the 10-year-old Pinellas Trail after him.

"What a great occasion," Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer, a former Pinellas County commissioner, said during Marquis' farewell party. "A public administrator is retiring on his own terms."

Marquis and his wife, Suzanne, promptly traveled to Alaska for some R&R and then began training to lead church missions.

Hitting home runs

While Clearwater's plans for downtown redevelopment flopped, city officials managed to persuade the Philadelphia Phillies to stick around for spring training for another 20 years. The city, county and state will invest about $20-million to keep the team here, an effort that includes building a new 7,000-seat training complex for the Phillies to replace the aging Jack Russell Stadium.

The Phillies have trained in Clearwater since 1947.

Dunedin also worked out a deal to keep the Toronto Blue Jays in town for another 15 years. The team, which has called Dunedin home since 1977, had threatened to leave because of flagging attendance.

The city agreed to pay to renovate Grant Field and Englebert Complex for the team. Dunedin will get $6-million from the state, $3-million from the county and will split another $3-million in expenses with the team.

The cities' efforts were helped along by legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, that provides money to cities that want to build or renovate publicly owned baseball facilities to keep spring training teams in town.

Seminole city officials hit one out of the park in June when voters in three unincorporated communities agreed to join the city. The move, one of the largest annexation measures in Pinellas County history, nearly doubled the size of the city and added about $205-million in taxable value to the city's existing tax base of $360-million.

The annexation turned Seminole into what Administration Director Harry Kyne called a "two-McDonalds city."

The expansion also means more residents can take pride in the city's newly painted water tower. The 110-foot tower, actually owned by the county, was covered this year with a mural of huge Florida birds flying against white clouds and a blue sky.

"When you see this tower with the birds," Mayor Dottie Reeder said, "you'll know you are in the heart of Seminole."

In the heart of East Lake, firefighters celebrated in September when 60 percent of residents voted to make the community's fire district independent from the county. That gives elected fire commissioners more control over their yearly budget.

Also, firefighters are now eligible for state and federal benefits they could not access before. Firefighters had argued that the district needed those benefits _ including long-term disability, communicable disease coverage, a pension program and federal death benefits _ to attract and retain personnel.

David vs. Goliath

Pinellas County's little people chalked up a few victories this year.

After years of criticizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Stauffer Management for their questionable plans to clean up a Tarpon Springs toxic waste site, citizens persuaded the federal agency and the Delaware company responsible for the site to rethink their efforts.

In a rare move, the EPA and Stauffer agreed in July to withdraw their controversial plans to pile up contaminated soil at the site on the Anclote River and cap it with dirt, grass and thick plastic. Residents, U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, and officials from the EPA ombudsman's office had blasted U.S. environmental officials for even proposing the mound-and-cap plan without first doing geological and groundwater studies.

After withdrawing the proposal, the EPA promised it would ensure that a wide range of tests, including a sinkhole study, were done at Stauffer. It also said it would make Stauffer do more research into the proposed solution and give the Florida Department of Environmental Protection a bigger say in the plan.

"It's a victory for the community," said Mary Mosley, a community activist and longtime Stauffer opponent. "We knew that you can't fit a remedy without testing for the most obvious."

A small neighborhood in Seminole also celebrated this month after the nation's second-largest drugstore chain withdrew its request to build an 11,000-square-foot store nearby.

The $20-billion company from Rhode Island had asked the county to rezone the land at the southwest corner of Park Boulevard and 113th Street from residential to commercial so it could build a store there. Bay Pines Evangelical Lutheran Church, which stands there now, wanted to sell the land so it could move to a larger plot west on Park Boulevard.

But nearby residents with hand-written speeches and homemade signs fought the request at several meetings before the county's planning board and the County Commission.

The company was scheduled to bring its request back to the County Commission on Dec. 19, but CVS canceled a few days before then. Church officials were disappointed by CVS' decision, but local residents rejoiced over the company's retreat.

"We won. The neighborhood won," said Helen Ford, one of the neighborhood's most vocal opponents of the zoning change.

Animal planet

Every year, it seems, Pinellas County residents have bizarre run-ins with the furry, the feathered and the scaly members of our community. The year 2000 was no different.

Last year, we brought you the tale of LaRoo, the wallaby who bounded out of her Tarpon Springs yard and kept her owners and police on the lookout for several days.

This year, it was Hanaman who was on the lam. The spider monkey escaped from his Palm Harbor home in January and hid among the mangroves in Pop Stansell Park.

The monkey then celebrated the New Year by mauling a Siberian Huskey who was strolling through the park with its owner. Balto had artery and tendon injuries requiring surgery at Countryside Animal Hospital.

The next day, Hanaman was lured from the mangroves by his owners and a primate specialist from Pasco County, who took the monkey to New Port Richey.

Balto has recovered from his injuries although he retains a slight limp, said owner Patrick Cambier.

Elvis the iguana slipped off his heating rock and ventured out into the world in February, giving his East Lake owners the slip for four months. During that time, helpful residents called the Josephs with plenty of Elvis sightings; all turned out to be impersonators.

The Josephs brought one of those iguanas home and named her Lisa Marie, all the while hoping that Elvis would re-enter the building. In May, the couple's mail carrier spotted Elvis down the street from their house. How the 5-foot lizard, with the spikey mohawk, managed to stay out of sight among the beige homes and manicured hedges of East Lake is still a mystery.

The Josephs were just glad to have him home, eating a healthy diet of hibiscus, zucchini, squash and strawberries. Lisa Marie's owners also turned up in Madeira Beach. Turns out that iguana's real name is Iggy.

A Safety Harbor squabble over bird feeding ruffled a few feathers this year as well.

Angelo Zaccari figured he went through a 40-pound bag of bird feed every week and a half, filling up a platform in his back yard where a statue of St. Francis of Assisi welcomes hungry birds. But his neighbor, Pierre DuBois, said Zaccari's bird feed attracted rats. So he erected a scarecrow named Fred, who managed to scare off some of the pigeons but not the rats.

Each man accused the other of being unreasonable, and each called the authorities.

Perhaps their neighbor, Frank Stritar, summed the feud up best: "It's silly."

+ + +

MAYOR EXITS: Largo Mayor Thomas Feaster hugs city worker Millie Cortez during his last day in office in April. Feaster, whose political career began as a city commissioner in 1974, decided not to seek re-election and spend more time with this family.

NEW CREW: Pinellas' new commission looks like none before it. It includes three women, two African-Americans and two Democrats. The members are, from left front, Calvin Harris, Bob Stewart, Barbara Sheen Todd; back row, John Morroni, Karen Seel, Ken Welch and Susan Latvala.

SIGN OF SPRING: Fans, such as this one at Grant Field in Dunedin in March, will vie for autographs from ballplayers for years to come. Dunedin and Clearwater persuaded their spring training teams to stick around.

MAYOR QUITS: After nearly 11 years as mayor of Belleair Beach, Bill Atteberry resigned after pleading guilty to a money laundering charge.

MANAGER EXITS: Clearwater City Manager Mike Roberto catches on television in July the City Commission's discussion about his resignation offer. His three-year tenure effectively ended when voters rejected plans for redevelopment.

OFFICIAL DIES: Dot Ruggles, Pinellas County's supervisor of elections for 12 years, died in May. She was 59.

STORM CLOUDS: A drugstore chain wanted to build at the site of Bay Pines Evangelical Lutheran Church, but residents successfully fought the proposal. At right, a tree in Palm Harbor fell victim to a small tornado that passed through in August.

UP IN SMOKE: Firefighters pour water onto a fire at Hobbs Metals & Recycling in Tarpon Springs in October. The fire consumed several boats, dozens of cars and hundreds of tires. Black smoke from the blaze could be seen for miles.

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